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THIS novel, which was published in 1907-1908 in Volume 29 of Young England. An Illustrated Magazine for Boys, is a complete rewrite of Francis Henry Atkins' earlier novel "A Trip to Mars." The latter made its first appearance as "A King of Mars" in The Sunday Circle, where it was printed as a serial from 5 Jan to 25 May 1907 before being published in book form in 1909 by W. & R. Chambers, London, under the title "A Trip to Mars."
In "A Son of the Stars" the heroes, who bear the names Gerald Wilton and Jack Lawford in "A Trip to Mars," are called Bruce Mortimer and Maurice Somers. The names of other characters have also been changed, and there are major plot differences between the two works. All in all, they differ sufficiently to merit their classification as two separate novels.
French translations of both novels appeared in 1929 under the titles "Les Avions de Mars" (The Aeroplanes of Mars) and "Le Fils des Étoiles" (The Son of the Stars) in the series "Pour la Jeunesse," Éditions du Clocher, Toulouse. These were re-issued in 1945.
The present RGL edition of "A Son of the Stars" marks the first appearance of the original novel in book form. The text was prepared by Keith Emmett from scanned images of his personal copy of Volume 29 of Young England. An Illustrated Magazine for Boys
A gallery of illustrations from the French edition has been included at the end of the book,
—Roy Glashan, 15 June 2017
TWO lads, named Bruce Mortimer and Maurice Somers, both orphans, found themselves living together on a sheep station in Australia, whither they had been sent by their respective guardians to learn farming. The station was situated in a remote and desolate mountainous district, the work was hard, they were harshly treated, and altogether their life was unhappy and almost intolerably lonely. As was natural in such circumstances, they became great friends, and spent whatever spare time they could get in each other's company, often going off together upon hunting trips or other excursions.
One day, when out on one of these trips, they met with an adventure which changed the whole current of their lives, and brought in its train a series of adventures more wonderful than they had ever imagined in their wildest dreams.
In one of the rushing mountain torrents which abound in the region, they saw some one struggling desperately, and on the point of being carried away and dashed over a waterfall. After almost heroic exertions, and at the risk of their own lives, they saved the stranger, and brought him to land in an unconscious state. He proved to be a young fellow not much older than themselves, dressed in very curious attire, the like of which they had never seen before. When he recovered consciousness they found that they could not understand a word he said, but by signs—he—invited them to follow him. He led them to a secluded valley amongst the mountains, where, to their utter amazement, they found a great number of people busily engaged in work of some kind upon an immense structure, which towered several hundreds of feet into the air, like some colossal ship. All these people were strangely dressed, and were apparently all of one race—one entirely unknown to the two astonished lads.
The young fellow whom they had rescued conducted them on board this structure, and presented them to one who was evidently the leader. He was a man of fine presence and noble mien, and received them with dignified condescension. They were subsequently treated with great hospitality, and were entertained with strange but luscious fruits, served in apartments gorgeously furnished and most richly decorated.
This was the beginning of a friendship between the two lads and the one whose life they had saved; and for several months they visited the valley from time to time, being each time gladly welcomed by their new friends, whom they always found still busy at work upon their "ship."
Gradually they learned to understand one another, and bit by bit the two chums thus got to know who these people were.
Incredible and astounding as it appeared, it was, they found, nevertheless the fact that the strangers were inhabitants of the planet Mars, who had travelled in the great airship they had been engaged in repairing. In landing on our earth they had made a slight miscalculation, which had very nearly resulted in a terrible disaster. As it was, damages had been sustained which rendered their aerostat useless for the time being, and which it had needed the whole of their time and resources, to remedy. Their leader was King Amando, a great and mighty ruler in Mars; and the one whom the two chums had rescued was his son, Prince Milona, a name which signified in their language "Son of the Stars."
Milona explained that when their repairs were finished they wished to travel round the earth, and learn as much as they could about it and its inhabitants. Meanwhile, having plenty to do, and being well supplied with stores, there was no need for them to leave the valley in which they had descended.
In regard to this tour he invited the two chums to go with them as guides and interpreters, accompanying the offer with a promise of such liberal terms that they gladly resolved to accept them, and to throw up their present uncongenial occupation.
At last, the work was finished, and the workers were taking a well-earned rest, when a wireless message from Mars reached King Amando, which caused him to alter all his plans, and spread dismay and consternation among his followers. It was to the effect that a revolution had broken out in his kingdom, and the rebels were supporting a rival claimant to the throne. At once the king gave up his projected tour of the world, and ordered preparations to be made for an immediate return to Mars.
This sudden change of plan was a great disappointment, not only to the two chums, who had rashly thrown up their employment, but also to Prince Milona. The three had become such friends that the prospect of a separation came as a most unpleasant shock, and Milona cast about for some way of avoiding it. He asked the two if they thought they would be plucky enough to go with him on a trip to Mars, supposing that he could obtain the king's consent, pointing out that after the trouble was over they were sure to return to Earth for their interrupted tour.
Both eagerly declared they would be only too delighted to seize the chance of making such a trip if offered to them; but when Milona broached his idea to his father the latter peremptorily refused his consent. Nothing dismayed by this failure, Milona, determined not to disappoint the eager hopes he had raised, thought out a daring plan. He offered to conceal them on board as stowaways, promising to take all blame upon himself, and to bear the brunt of the king's disapproval if he should be angry when he discovered what had been done.
This plan was carried out. Bruce and Maurice were smuggled on board disguised as members of the prince's suite. With them went, an old sailor, Mike Jones, a worker on the farm, who had become attached to them, and begged so hard not to be left behind that the prince was induced to allow him to join them.
Scarcely had they arrived on board, and been stowed away in a place of temporary concealment, when the "Ramaylia"—so the huge airship was named—spread out its immense wings, and rose slowly and majestically into the air.
IT would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful sight, a more magnificent spectacle, than that presented, at early dawn, in a secluded valley of the Australian wilderness at the time this story opens, when the colossal "Chariot of the Skies" which had remained so long inactive started upon her return to the planet from which she had come.
It was a sight which would have aroused the enthusiasm of the whole world had its inhabitants been there to look upon it. One can imagine what scenes there would have been had the start taken place from, let us say, London, or some such great centre of population!
What crowds would have gathered to give the travellers a "send off," and wish them "good luck" on their wondrous voyage!
Royalty would have been there, with a brilliant throng of princes and princesses, peers and peeresses, statesmen, scientists, and notabilities from all parts of our globe, gathered to do honour to the intrepid voyagers who had accomplished the, till then, incredible feat of travelling from one planet in the starry heavens to another!
The start would have been made amidst the booming of cannon, the music of military bands, and the hoarse roar of plaudits and cheers from tens of thousands of admiring and wondering spectators!
Some such scene, one may feel assured, would have actually taken place had the Martian king and his daring followers been able to carry out their original intention of making a tour of the world, and showing themselves and their marvellous, mighty aerostat, to the wondering gaze of its peoples.
Fate had, however, willed otherwise, and the departure took place with no crowds to witness it; without so much as one admiring spectator gazing up from the ground below. The birds of the air were almost the only living creatures who looked upon it, and they fled in wild affright from what to them must have appeared to be some immense bird of prey.
Sindbad's famous roc itself would have appeared small and insignificant by the side of this huge creation, as it mounted upwards in a series of magnificent, graceful curves. Immense wings were beating the still air; great whirling spirals and revolving fans were sending forth deep, humming sounds, which can only be likened to the sonorous, diapason notes of some enormous organ.
Upwards, still upwards, the stupendous structure rose, standing out now against the blue sky above, looming larger than the biggest ship afloat upon the seas of the earth, working always in a series of curves and winding flights; the large, flat, spreading tail, and the outstretched figurehead adding to its resemblance to a giant bird.
From time to time, as the air became more rarefied, extensive changes were made in the visible equipment, and the wings worked ever faster and faster. One after the other the openings were closed and made secure; a vast, dome-like roof, semi-transparent, rolled over, covering in the upper deck completely. The tail, the figurehead, and all other projections were drawn inside, till the whole structure became egg-shaped, with nothing outside save the wings, and these were connected with the interior only by the metal shafts which worked them.
Thus the voyagers were completely boxed up, as it were, inside the vast machine. There was not even so much as a look-out window—so far as could be seen—and the noise made by the beating of the wings had become muffled.
At the same time other sounds, which had been somewhat subdued, began to grow in power and volume. The rumbling throb of Titanic engines, the deep, gasping, booming plunge of gigantic air-pumps, grew more insistent, and, mingling together, produced at last a confused, almost deafening roar.
Meanwhile, the people on board were evidently in a state of tense, strained excitement. Those engaged in the various operations, or in carrying orders and messages, went about with a weighty sense of responsibility. Others, who had no duties to perform, looked on in silence, too well conscious of the critical and difficult nature of the operations going forward to talk, even if the thunderous roar of the pulsating machinery had not rendered conversation difficult.
At a half-open door of one of the state-rooms, two young Britishers and an older companion—the sole representatives of our Earth among the crowd of voyagers—peered cautiously out with eager, interested faces. King Amando, the mighty Martian ruler, knew nothing of their presence on board, and little dreamed that he carried stowaways. His son—Prince Milona, "Son of the Stars," to give him his proper designation—and half a dozen of his most trusted friends, were alone in the secret; and, truth to tell, now that the thing had been done, they did not feel any too comfortable when they came to consider what the eventual outcome was likely to be. King Amando was a ruler beloved and respected by his followers for his unvarying kindliness and sense of justice towards all around him; but he was also known to be a potentate with whom it was dangerous for any one—even the prince himself—to take liberties. Consequently, the half-dozen who had joined in the little conspiracy, by means of which Bruce Mortimer and Maurice Somers and their companion had been smuggled on board in the dark at the last moment, had good reason for the doubts which now assailed them.
Milona himself, however, if he felt any misgivings, cast them aside for the time being, and did his best to put his guests—as he considered them to be—at their ease. He stood outside the half-closed door and talked to them, explaining from time to time, as well as the noises around them would allow, everything that was going on. During their previous intercourse the two had already learned many things concerning the design and construction of the great aerostat; but this was their first experience of an actual flight through the air.
According to what had previously been explained to them, it seemed that some learned scientists of Mars had formed a sort of exclusive circle of their own; and it was the discoveries made by them which had rendered the navigation of space possible. King Amando, who had distinguished himself as an inventor as well as in other ways, was one of this knot of learned men, and as such shared their secrets. Upon the surface of Mars itself, where all matter, animate or inanimate, weighs so much less than upon our earth, the invention of flying machines had been a comparatively easy matter. Such contrivances had been in use for hundreds of years. But they could only be used for going about within a few miles of the surface of the planet.
The building of aerostats capable of travelling outside those limits, carrying with them their own supplies of air, had only been rendered possible—and that within a comparatively recent period—by the discovery, by the scientists referred to, of a means of controlling the attractive and repulsive forces of the sun. Exactly how it was effected was a secret which they jealously guarded.
Another important factor in solving the problem of navigating space had consisted in the invention of a metal of extraordinary strength, yet marvellously light, and semi-transparent. It was of this metal that the outer shell of the "Ramaylia" was composed, giving light within from the sun's rays even when sealed up air- tight and cold-proof.
It was understood that when near the surface of a planet the wings and spirals were necessary to sustain the aerostat in the air; but that when the upper layers of atmospheric air were reached, the attraction of the sun was brought into play to finally draw the structure out of the sphere of the planet's attraction. From that point the wings, fans, and spirals were no longer required, the sun's attractive power being all-sufficient. After that, again—when, that is to say, well beyond the planet's influence—the force of repulsion had to be utilised to prevent the daring adventurers from being drawn into the sun itself.*
(* For the information of those of our readers who take an interest in the wonders of astronomy, it may, be explained that some of our scientists have long suspected the existence in Nature of such a force as that here referred to, i.e., a force of Repulsion, acting, under certain conditions, in exactly the opposite way to the force of Attraction. Many authorities are of opinion that it is this force which causes some comets to leave what we term a "tail" behind them; a phenomenon difficult to account for in any other way.)
Thus it came about that, after a certain time, the machinery suddenly ceased, the wings became motionless, and the great machine seemed to be floating stationary in space.
Then King Amando came forth from a sort of deckhouse, and strolled across to where he saw his son standing. A warning signal, however, had apprised the stowaways of his approach, and they had already vanished, diving like rabbits beneath some heavy draperies which hung across one end of the state-room.
Amando seemed well pleased. His handsome, chiselled features wore a look as of the satisfaction which follows relief from the strain of an anxious time. In his whole bearing—always noble and dignified—there was just the suggestion now of pride—the pride of the savant who has forced science to become his handmaiden, and to carry out his will like the slave of Aladdin's lamp.
"'Tis well, Milona!" said he. "My theory has proved correct. There is an ethereal current running back upon this side of the sun, as I thought there must be, and we have struck it. Now we are being carried along in the direction of our planet almost as quickly as it is advancing to meet us. What a speed to travel at compared with anything we can attain in the air!"
A great stillness had followed upon the previous confused roar, and the silence seemed, in a manner, strange and almost startling, so suddenly had it come about. Then there had arisen a buzz of conversation and general talk, followed by a number of mixed sounds as the voyagers, relieved from the strain of the preceding hours, went about their ordinary duties.
"I shall take a look round to see that everything is satisfactory," continued Amando, "and then lie down for a rest."
A little while afterwards Milona called to the stowaways to come out of their hiding-places.
"My father has gone to his private apartments to get some sleep," he told them. "He has been up early and late worrying over the arrangements for our voyage, and is tired. He is not likely to turn out for some hours, so you can come with me and I will show you round."
Like a trio of schoolboys set free from work, the friends tripped off in high glee. Intense curiosity had now mastered all other feelings on the part of the two lads, and they delighted in being at liberty to go about and see what was to be seen.
They were both dressed in the picturesque Martian dress worn by the members of Milona's suite, a half-civil, half-military garb, not unlike the costume in which William Tell is generally portrayed. Mike—or Micky, as they usually called him, their humble and faithful follower—was decked out in a somewhat similar garb, but of plainer material, and partaking more of the livery of a superior servant.
In their rich costumes Bruce and Maurice made a gallant show, for they could both boast of tall, well-built, sturdy figures. Bruce's dark hair and face made him resemble more nearly the Martians whose style of dress he had adopted; Maurice's fair hair and fresh complexion marking him out at once as a stranger amongst them. As to Mike, Maurice declared that he "looked about as much at home as a goose which had rigged itself out in the feathers of a turkey might be expected to do." And poor Mike only gave a feeble grin of assent.
"I ain't meself, Misther Maurice," he murmured. "Sure I'm entoirely at say."
"Ye look like it, Micky—seasick," observed Bruce.
Mike, according to his own account, was only half an Irishman, the other half being—so he declared—Welsh. His full name—which was no less than Mike Evan Patrick Jones—bore out this statement; and it seemed that he had a difficulty in making up his mind which country he liked best. Usually he decided for Ireland, at which times his talk would be enriched with smatterings of the Irish fashion of speech. Then he would feel a gust of Welsh patriotism sweep over him, whereupon "Begorrah" or "Bejabers" would be replaced by the milder "Well, well," or "Indeet to cootness, yes!"
The little party was increased by two of Milona's friends named Tralona and Myontis, two young nobles who had been his intimate companions from boyhood.
Like the young prince, who inherited his father's good looks, they were handsome specimens of Martian youths; and, like him, they were endowed with a liberal fund of vivacity and high spirits.
The first place to which Milona conducted his guests was the conning tower, whence a view could be had of their surroundings.
"You will like to take a last look at your globe," he observed, "before it gets too small to be distinguishable from the other planets and stars."
"Are we already so far away, then?" asked Maurice in surprise.
"You shall see. Look for yourself," answered Milona, as he threw open a shutter, thus affording a view through double glass screens.
The two from Earth gave a gasp of astonishment. What strange sight was this which met their gaze?
Gone was the blue sky—that beautiful, azure vault to which they had been accustomed from infancy. In its place was a great, black void, in which the various stars hung like little suspended lamps, while the sun itself seemed to throw out no rays. But the most wonderful sight of all was the Earth, which they had so lately left. No sign was there now of the landscapes they had expected to see. There was only an immense ball, perhaps a hundred times the apparent size of the sun, and it seemed to be retreating rapidly, glaring back at them the while with a strangely weird light, partly blue, partly red.
After the first burst of surprise, they looked more closely, and perceived that the red parts formed continents and islands, and the blue marked the oceans and seas, much, as to form, as they would appear upon a gigantic map.
"Why—it looks like a map!" exclaimed Maurice. "I can make out Africa, and—and—yes, England, too! Look, Bruce!"
"Can ye pint out Oireland—and—Wales to me, Misther Maurice?" asked Mike, evidently interested. "I'd like to take a last look at me two native countries before it's too late, jist t' see how they be goin' on."
"Too late, Micky, too late," Maurice declared. "I can only distinguish England and Scotland."
Mike sighed. "'Tis always the way," he grumbled. "Go where ye will, ye foind the Oirish an' the Welsh blotted out by the pushin' English an' Scotch!"
"It's a wonderful sight to look upon! Wonderful to gaze back upon your own planet and see it a mere gigantic red and blue ball!" said Bruce. Then a thought struck him, and he added: "What if we should never go back to it again, Maurice?"'
Maurice gave a grunt. "Now, that's what I call a real, right down cheerful remark to make." Then, turning to Milona, he asked: "Why does it seem to be rushing away from us like that?"
"It isn't," was the reply. "It is we who are rushing away from it. We are being whirled along in an ethereal current, which is travelling at the rate of some thousands of your miles an hour. But so perfectly free are we from any kind of friction that you think you are stationary, and that it is the other thing which is moving."
When they had looked long enough at all that was to be seen from the conning tower—including their goal, the distant Mars, which as yet appeared only as a small point of light—Milona led them to the lower decks, and showed them the machinery for keeping the air supply sweet and pure. Then he explained the use of the semi- transparent metal roof.
"Outside," he declared, "the sun is shining, but it seems to have no power. The cold upon the other side of this metal screen is so intense that I cannot put it into figures. Yet, inside, the same rays, though partially screened off, feel warm and comfortable. The reason is that the shape of the roof has been found to act as does the atmosphere on your planet or ours. Or, to put it another way, it acts like a burning glass, collecting the rays and focussing them so as to bring out their heat."
Many other curious things were shown them, which it would be tedious to describe here at length. One was an arrangement of screens for shutting out the light and producing artificial "night"—for out in space it is everlasting "day." Another was an ingenious method of setting up an artificial sense of "weight." For in space, again, there is no feeling of weight; and without something of the kind to replace it they could not have existed in comfort for a single hour.
This brought them to the subject of the difference in the weight of bodies on the Earth and on Mars, and led on to the subject of flying.
"The same person weighs only about half, on our planet, compared with his weight on yours," Milona remarked, repeating, in effect, what he had more than once previously explained. "At home I can fly about by the aid of artificial wings. But on your earth I found such a thing impossible. Before we reach the end of our journey, perhaps, I will give you lessons in the art, for you must know that our apparent weights will be gradually altered and made lighter, as will also the density of the air we breathe, so that by the time we land on the surface of our planet we shall not notice the change."
"I began to fear that there was something of the sort going on— but the other way about," remarked Maurice, looking very wise. "All the time you've been lecturing to us, like a solemn Professor Dryasdust, your whole air and manner has been getting heavier and heavier. That's enough lecture for to-day. Show us something a little more lively!"
"Bring out the wings, and let us see if our weights have already changed enough for you to give us a lesson now," urged Bruce.
"Why not?" Maurice exclaimed. "Why not let me have a try?"
"Shure, theer's sinse in that," quoth Mike. "It's Misther Maurice as is the flighty one—"
Maurice turned sharply, and Mike did not finish.
"Prince!" said Maurice severely, "a speech like that calls for a fitting punishment! Put the wings on Mike, and let us see what he can do. We'll haul him up to the roof and watch him flutter down! I expect there's no one in the great hall, and there's plenty of room there."
The "great hall" was a spacious apartment where King Amando held his court functions; and it was, as the speaker knew, usually deserted at other times.
Thither the party now repaired, in high spirits at the prospect of a joke at Mike's expense.
The big hall—it is a more appropriate name for this immense chamber than "saloon" would be—proved to be empty; and Milona, willing to amuse his guests, fetched some sets of wings, such as he said were in common use on Mars.
One pair he fastened to his own shoulders and arms, another pair were donned by Myontis and the two then climbed up some metal columns and threw themselves from the top. They managed to make a more or less successful descent, sweeping along almost the whole length of the place before reaching the floor, but they failed to sustain themselves in the air.
Then Maurice must needs try his hand—or rather his arms—at it, and he insisted that Mike should do the same.
But that individual stoutly protested. "Inteet, inteet to cootness, I should break my neck!" he cried, lapsing into his Welsh accent.
"Now, Mr. Mike ap Evan O'Patrick ap Jones, you've got to obey," cried Maurice. "We want to see how you can fly. As to risking your neck, why should yours be more tender than mine?"
In the end the wings were fitted on, and the two half-climbed and were half-pushed up on to a ledge. Prince Milona and his friends shouted out their last instructions, and the amateur flyers sprang into the air.
At that moment the door opened, and some one came in and stood looking at the two flyers, who were whizzing and spinning about as helplessly as might a big bluebottle that had lost one of its wings.
They came into violent collision with the new-comer, and the three rolled over on the floor together.
Then a great cry of dismay arose from the onlookers as they saw what had happened and recognised the man on the floor; for it was King Amando himself!
"BRUCE! We shall land on Mars this day week!"
It was Maurice who brought the news to his friend, as he burst into the apartment, where the latter was quietly sitting reading a book.
"How do you know? Who says so?"
"The king himself. He invited me into the conning tower, and allowed me a peep through the look-out. There you can see Mars looking as large as—as—" Maurice hesitated for a simile. "Well, it's big enough to be able to make out the canals our scientists have been so puzzled about," he concluded.
It will be gathered from the foregoing that the stowaways had succeeded in making their peace with King Amando. Things had looked pretty black for them at first, and they had been kept as prisoners in close confinement for a fortnight. Nothing had occurred during that time to relieve their suspense; for Prince Milona and the friends who had assisted in the little conspiracy had been "confined to their quarters," which is another way of saying they were prisoners also. Then had followed a day when the delinquents had been brought before the king, and passed the ordeal of a painful interview. Eventually Milona's appeals had been successful, and they had been graciously accorded a full pardon, with the status, as to the future, of guests of the prince.
Maurice had aided in his satisfactory result by declaring, when questioned by Amando as to his reason for playing the stowaway, that he knew that he (King Amando) had trouble at home, and he wanted to fight under his banner.
"I would rather take service with you, sir," he declared, "than remain to look after sheep."
This speech seemed to catch the king's fancy; and from that time forth Maurice was an especial favourite with him.
For the rest, the journey had been almost uneventful, and the time had sped swiftly. There was a splendid library on board, and the two had learned to read the language as well as to speak it fluently. They had also improved the time by learning Martian sports and warlike exercises, and doing their best to fit themselves to serve under their leader's banner. They had even ventured again upon attempts at flying; and, if they had not exactly yet learned the art, they had mastered its rudiments—so the prince declared—and they only now, as he put it, "required a little practice over water, where a fall or two would not hurt."
The days which followed Maurice's announcement were full of excitement. Each morning they were allowed to make a short visit to the conning tower, where they were able to see the great globe they were approaching gradually increasing in size, while the map-like outlines upon its surface became clearer and larger with each twenty-four hours.
They were anxious days, too; for wireless messages were continually arriving apprising the king of the progress of the revolution which had broken out amongst his subjects. His loyal followers had been defeated more than once; and it became a question whether, when he arrived, he would find his capital still in their hands, or in that of his enemies.
However, when at last the day arrived, news came that matters had somewhat improved. The rebels and their foreign supporters had met with a reverse. The capital was safe for the time, at any rate, and the citizens were free to give themselves up to rejoicings at the return of their lawful ruler.
Then began some complicated operations and manoeuvres, somewhat similar to those which had accompanied the start from earth, but in reverse order.
There were heard again the roar of heavy machinery and the deep, sonorous hum of great fans and spirals. The immense wings were in motion once more, and presently the domed covering rolled back, leaving the upper deck free.
"Come, my friends, and look upon my home!" cried Milona, as he led, or rather almost dragged, the two chums to the side and bade them look over. "Below you lies the city of Nitalda, and the king's palace is the large building you can see perched on that great rock higher and bigger than any of the others."
The friends looked down, and saw a strange and wondrous scene. The "Ramaylia" was sweeping downwards in long spiral flights. Below could be seen a seemingly endless array of pinnacles or pillars of rock, extending as far as the eye could reach, each bearing a building perched on its summit, looking, from where they were, as Maurice expressed it, "like so many big dovecotes."
In and out at intervals amongst these rocky towers the gleam of water could be discerned, marking the position of broad canals and waterways, which ran this way and that, and intersected each other, like a geometrical drawing on a grand scale.
Above all this were to be seen thousands of flying machines of every conceivable shape, size, colour, and design, from great war craft down to aerial "yachts," "skiffs," and "motor-wings," as Milona termed them, as he pointed them out in turn. Amongst them all were individuals flying in and out by the aid of artificial wings alone.
As the "Ramaylia" drew nearer to the surface, there came up to the ears of the voyagers the swelling roar of thousands upon thousands of hoarse cheers and huzzas, the strains of strange, wild music, the crash of heavy explosions, and other signs and sounds of public rejoicings.
"Now this, Prince Milona," exclaimed Maurice, "is more like the 'send off' you would have had when you started upon your return voyage if you had only been able to carry out your intended tour of our world!"
A little later they descended into the midst of it all, and the whole air around them became thick with swarms of aeronauts competing with one another for the honour of being the first to greet their king upon his return.
"By Jove!" cried Bruce, as he and Maurice gazed first this way and then that, "such a scene as this is worth coming to see for itself alone! But think, Maurice, what it promises in the future, what new wonders we can look forward to, what adventures may be in store for us!"
With sparkling eyes, and faces aflame with interest and excitement, they gazed upon the whirling crowds of aeronauts, and listened to their frantic shouts: "Welcome home! Long live King Amando! Long live Prince Milona, the Son of the Stars!"
THE "Ramaylia," the mighty "Chariot of the Skies," which had made the tremendous journey to our Earth and returned again to Mars, circled round, and, with a graceful, downward stoop, came quietly and smoothly to rest upon a flat tableland lying on the top of a mountainous mass of rock.
Then Martians began to flock on board from every direction; from the sides—where airships made fast as though they were mooring to a line of quays—and from above, for flying aeronauts came down and alighted on the deck like flocks of birds. Soon the whole expanse of the spacious deck was covered with people dressed in all kinds of fantastic costumes. It was noticeable that some of the flyers folded their wings neatly behind their shoulders, whilst others unbuckled them, and gave them into the care of flying serving men, who had been in attendance on them during their flight, as mounted grooms here attend their masters on horseback.
There was a hubbub of talk and exclamation. Expressions of wonder and admiration were mingled with a rain of questions on both sides. Those who had crowded on board sought for details and particulars of the events and experiences of the wonderful voyage; while the returned wanderers inquired, with no less interest, after friends they had left at home, and asked anxiously for information about the war and everything that had happened during their absence.
While all this preliminary congratulation and questioning continued, the three visitors from our earth seemed to be, as Maurice expressed it, "rather out of it." For a while they were left to themselves. King Amando, surrounded by a ring of splendidly-garbed officers, was holding a sort of informal reception. Prince Milona was doing much the same thing not far away. Tralorna, Myontis, and others with whom the stowaways had made friends on the voyage, were engaged, after a like fashion, welcoming their friends and relations, and exchanging news.
Thus the three Britishers were left to themselves; though the fact did not in any way trouble them. There was so much to be seen, so much that was new to interest them, so many wonders around, that they had little time to give to thought. They watched all that went on, noted the different dresses and various types of people, and speculated as to whether the groups they saw betokened distinct nationalities or merely different grades and classes. In some cases, however, what may be termed foreign tongues were distinctly audible, showing that the crowd must consist of more than one race.
This latter point seemed to have a special interest for their faithful follower. Mike observed everybody and everything with quiet attention, and appeared to be mentally classifying the people about him after a fashion of his own. Presently he turned to Maurice:
"Could ye be afther tellin' me, Mr. Maurice, which be the Mars Oirish? Shure Oi'd loike to be able t' make frinds wid me own counthrymen."
"We'll have to make inquiries as to that, by and by, Micky," Maurice gravely responded. "I'm afraid, though, that you won't find any of them speaking Irish."
"An' not Welsh, neither, sorr?" asked Mike greatly surprised.
Maurice shook his head, and found some difficulty in repressing the smile that was almost on his lips at the blank look that came upon the worthy fellow's face. Evidently Mike was disposed to regard such a fact as yet another instance of injustice towards what he called his two native countries.
But a diversion now came. Up till then the three might, had they been so disposed, have found ground for complaint that they, as guests, were being neglected. But it was certain that this was no longer the case. Somehow or other, in that subtle, inexplicable manner in which such things come about, a hint, a whisper had passed round among the new arrivals to the effect that two or three inhabitants of "the evening star"* had come over to pay the Martians a visit.
(*To the inhabitants of Mars the Earth appears as the evening or morning star, very much as the planet we call Venus appears to us.)
Naturally such an announcement produced a profound sensation. First one, then another, stole covert glances at the three; and soon they found themselves the "observed of all observers." There was no rude staring, however, no embarrassing, vulgar gaze. Instead, the notice bestowed was flattering rather than otherwise, since not only was it in all cases respectfully cordial, but there was even in it a sensible meed of admiration. Some, indeed, seemed to regard almost with awe these strangers who had been intrepid enough to leave their own planet and venture upon such a wondrous journey to another globe utterly unknown to them.
Then Milona suddenly became conscious that he was rather neglecting his guests.
With his usual vivacious, impetuous manner he now made a rush at Bruce and Maurice, and, seizing a hand of each, made his way with them towards the circle of notabilities surrounding the king. Amando, be it here said, had been discussing with his officers and ministers momentous questions relating to the war which had been going on, or doubtless he would not have needed any reminder of his duties as host.
Into this high and select circle Milona unceremoniously pushed his way, almost dragging, rather than leading, his two bashful guests. The sight of them at once reminded Amando that he had not yet introduced them to his people.
With an indulgent smile at Milona's abrupt disregard of the usual etiquette, he received them graciously, and then addressed those around him:
"Friends! We have brought back with us two young gentlemen, inhabitants of the planet known to us as 'Lokris,' the evening star. The daring and courage they have shown in venturing upon the voyage with us to another planet will, I am convinced, be of itself a sufficient passport to your favour, apart from the fact that they are my guests. But beyond that, I have only to tell you that they saved my son's life to lead you to accord them a yet warmer welcome. But for their prompt and freely-given assistance, at a critical moment, and at the risk of their own lives, Prince Milona would never have returned to you, and I should have come back childless! I need say no more, friends, to commend them to your consideration! I wish you all to extend to them the affectionate welcome which the occasion calls for, reminding you that in honouring my guests you will be honouring myself!"
While King Amando had been speaking, the whole assembly had listened in respectful silence, those in the outer ranks straining their ears to catch what was said. No sooner, however, had he finished than they burst into a great chorus of approval and welcome. There was a perfect roar of cheering; scarves and banners were seen waving in the air on all sides, and then the crowd of brilliant officials pressed forward, in order of precedence, to extend a personal and individual greeting.
Bruce and Maurice scarcely knew what to say or which way to look. The remarkable warmth and friendliness of the welcome accorded them was somewhat over-whelming, and they were not prepared for it. They felt they were being treated as though they were young heroes rather than mere adventurous travellers; and such a reception embarrassed them.
However, they had to go through with it. One by one—sometimes in twos and threes—the nobles, the officers of state, and other great personages, were presented to them by the king; after which Milona seized upon them in his breezy fashion and carried them off to another part of the deck, where they went through similar ceremonies with a circle of his own particular friends.
When they gained a breathing time, they looked about for Mike, and were not a little astonished to find that he was holding a sort of court of his own.
It seemed that the chief amongst Prince Milona's servants, one Yama by name, had taken Mike in hand, and had introduced him to a number of under officials and lesser personages. These good people, not knowing what his status in his own land might have been, and seeing the honours being paid to the two he was with, conceived the idea that he must be a very important person, only a little less than their own nobles, and they were treating him accordingly.
Mike, on his side, played his part with amusing sang froid. He imitated exactly Yama's courtly bows and stately airs, throwing in a little extra swagger of his own, which evidently greatly impressed those around him. As he had learned during the voyage to speak the language of his hosts fairly well, he was quite at his ease in that respect. He managed, too, to throw into it a suggestion of a rich brogue, which his new friends took to be a further sign of his aristocratic parentage.
"Well, Micky, you seem to be enjoying yourself!" exclaimed Bruce in English, laughingly. "You're a broth of a bhoy! Nothing shy about you, anyway! I should say, by the way they are treating you, that you have been treating these good folk to some of your Irish blarney?"
"Shore, an' whoy not, Mister Bruce?" returned the unabashed Micky. "Whist now. Oi've onnly bin tellin' 'em as how, if ye had yez roights accordin' t' my thinkin', ye'd a bin King ov Australia, an' Misther Maurice wud a bin—"
"Prince of Africa; and that you are descended from the ould kings of Oireland and Owen Glendower of Wales, eh?"
The imperturbable Micky did not repudiate the suggestion. He looked proudly and loftily round, and said in a low tone:
"Be aisy now, Misther Bruce! Shure it isn't my fault if the gossoons sees the traces av me royal blood in me face an' figger! Don't ye say annythin' to upset the notion, sorr. It'll do ye a power o' good in their moinds t' think ye've got sich a distinguished Oirish gintlem'n in attendance on yez!"
Just then Milona interrupted:
"We are off to the palace now! Come with me! I want to conduct you myself to my home!"
Already temporary platforms, arranged in wide steps, had been placed against the towering sides of the great airship, and a grand procession was being formed for a march to King Amando's abode, a large and beautiful edifice which could be seen half a mile or so away.
Milona led his guests forward to a place of honour immediately behind the king, and the procession filed down the steps and passed up a road beyond, amid the plaudits and huzzas of thousands of enthusiastic spectators.
As they drew nearer to the royal residence the visitors from Earth became more and more astonished at its marvellous proportions.
Stately towers rose into the rose-tinted sky—for, as they had already noticed, the prevailing tone of the sky was rosy red, just as with us it is blue—and seemed to melt into the distance, so far did they extend. Magnificent gateways reared themselves in impressive grandeur; seemingly endless groups of arches and columns of exquisite symmetry, and wonderfully carved came into view, sparkling and glistening in the sun, some like jasper, others like gold, and others again flashing back the rays as though built of some kind of prismatic crystal.
From lofty turrets and soaring spires flags streamed out gaily and proudly in the breeze, and as they approached the chief entrance, a number of armed guards in brilliant uniforms turned out to strains of wild, martial music, and lined up on each side.
"Welcome, my friends! Once more welcome to my home!" said Milona as they passed under a towering archway, into a spacious courtyard where more guards and ranks of servants awaited them.
"At last our voyage is ended, and you have become, for the time being at any rate, inhabitants of another planet!"
IN the courtyard the procession broke up into groups, some going one way, some another.
Milona had a short talk with one who was evidently a high functionary; a moment or two later he made him known to his young guests as "the Lord Doraldo, our Court Chamberlain."
"I am coming with you to the apartments which you are to occupy," the prince observed to Bruce. "I must see for myself that you are comfortable."
With that he turned and led the way, first through other courtyards, then up broad, noble staircases, and along spacious galleries, finally pausing at a particular door.
"This is the suite which our good Doraldo thought would please you," he observed. "Now we will see whether the rooms are to your liking. If they are not we can change them for others."
Certainly neither Bruce nor Maurice was likely to find fault with such apartments. They were amazed indeed at the sumptuous surroundings in which they found themselves.
Milona conducted them from one room to another, and showed them, at the end, a chamber of white marble, with a large marble plunge bath, in the centre of which a fountain was merrily plashing.
"There is your bath; now to see about your wardrobe."
Leading them into a smaller apartment he showed them a number of court dresses the sight of which almost took their breath away.
"Are we—er—expected—to wear these," asked Maurice, wonderingly.
"Certainly, my dear friend. The king would not like to see you dressed otherwise," was Milona's reply; and Maurice was silent.
But presently, when their lively young host had retired and left them to themselves, Maurice returned to the subject:
"I say!" he exclaimed, turning over the rich, costly costumes that had been laid out for their inspection, "how the dickens are we to wear these? How funny I shall feel in such toggery!"
"'When one goes to Rome one must do as Rome does' is a very old saying," Bruce commented gravely. "I don't very well see how we can refuse—especially if it is the king's wish."
To that Maurice could find no answer; and some time later, when Mike came to present himself, he found them dressed in a manner which excited his unbounded admiration. Richly-worked tunics and belts, set off by handsome scarves, swords and daggers, with hilts beautifully worked in solid gold—these were noticeable details.
"Shure ye make a brave show!" cried Micky with enthusiasm. "It does me eyes good t' look at yez!"
Now, in saying this the worthy Mike was artfully diplomatic. Doubtless he was sincere in what he said; but it is probable that he was also trying to draw off attention from his own changed appearance. For their kindly hosts, having desired to do honour to Micky as well as to his masters—or to honour them through him—had placed at his disposal some dresses such as were worn by some of their own officials, and he had chosen the one which took his fancy the most, regardless of consequences. It was, in effect, not unlike the uniform worn by a field marshal in our own country. There was a sword with a golden hilt, and a cocked hat with a heavy, drooping plume.
"Micky!" cried Maurice aghast.
"Are you mad?" asked Bruce sternly.
These blunt signs of disapproval startled Mike so much that he suddenly forgot he was Irish.
"Inteet to cootness, Mr. Bruce," he murmured, "these be quite the proper clothes t' wear! I noticed people wearin' 'em as I came along, an' thought how nice an' gay they looked."
"That hat!—those plumes!" exclaimed Bruce.
"And the sword!" added Maurice. "What on Earth—I mean what on Mars—is the chap thinking about?"
"Inteet, inteet," Micky began to protest, when the discussion was cut short by the arrival of Yama, the prince's major-domo.
He had been sent, he said, by his young master to conduct them to the banqueting-hall. He gazed at Mike with palpable admiration, and was evidently more than ever impressed with a conviction that he must be a person of distinction in his own land, for he now made way for him, and signed to him to walk in front. This compliment Micky modestly declined, and when Bruce looked round, after going a few yards, to ask the way, he found that instead of following them the two were engaged in a sort of bowing match, each anxious to make place for the other. At his call they compromised matters by walking abreast arm in arm.
In a large ante-chamber the king and prince were awaiting their guests, and a little later the two chums found themselves seated at the table in a great hall, amid such a brilliant assembly as they had scarcely imagined even in their wildest dreams.
A noble, grand apartment was this hall, with its crystal pillars sparkling with lights which were somehow fixed inside; with its beautiful paintings and decorations on the walls, and the marvellous star-spangled roof.
It was a notable banquet. The highest and noblest amongst the nations ruled over by King Amando—for he was the overlord of several countries—had assembled to greet him on his return. Among them were many ladies—the Queen, and princesses, and many others of high rank, among whom were certain maidens whose beauty made no small impression on the two visitors from our planet. Merely to look round and note the lovely dresses and gorgeous costumes was in itself a sight to be remembered. There was one noticeable feature, however—there were no flashing jewels to be seen. But this did not surprise the young travellers, who already knew that precious stones were almost unknown on Mars.
This entertainment was a memorable one, as it afterwards turned out, for more reasons than one. It brought home to them, so to speak, the great fact that they were now actually living on another planet. This fact of itself was so wonderful that once or twice Maurice asked himself whether he was really awake or whether it was possible that it was all a wondrous dream from which, by and by, he would suddenly awake, to find himself back at his uncomfortable quarters at the Australian sheep station.
It was memorable, however, for another reason—the unlooked-for interruption which fate had in store for these festivities.
The meal itself consisted principally of luscious fruits—for the use of meat had been abandoned by the Martians long ago—with cooling drinks of exquisite flavour; and it was almost at an end. The chums were speculating on what was likely to follow—whether there would be speeches, or music, dances, or other entertainments—when an officer was seen to enter the hall in haste and whisper something to the lord chamberlain. That official rose with a troubled countenance and went direct to the king.
There was hurried talk between the two of so obviously disturbing a character that an ominous silence fell upon the assembly. Amando beckoned to Kumelda (his chief general) and Lankris (the chief engineer of the "Ramaylia"), who promptly left their places and joined in the whispered conference.
Then King Amando rose. His lips were set and stern, his brow, usually so placid and serene, was clouded by a frown; his voice rang out sonorously, as he addressed those around him:
"Friends! I have grave and weighty news to impart to you! There has been treachery at work! By some means—I fear I must say owing in part to some most unfortunate negligence on the side of some of our own people—emissaries of our enemies, spies, have gained access to the 'Ramaylia,' and succeeded in seriously damaging some of the machinery before they were discovered. The best part of the news is that by good chance they were interrupted and made prisoners before they had quite completed their nefarious design; and they are now waiting to be brought before me.
"Exactly what amount of mischief they have been able to effect we as yet know not. That we must immediately ascertain. We can only feel sure of one thing; that such a scheme, carried out at this particular time—just after our return from our long voyage— points to the probability of a coming attack. Our enemies, knowing that the presence here of the 'Ramaylia' would mean the overthrow of their hopes, have planned to disable her by treachery—and what time could they choose more suitable to their purpose than immediately after our arrival? It was evidently hoped that in the general excitement and rejoicing, and the release of the crew from the restraints of long confinement on board, the vigilance of our watchers might be temporarily relaxed.
"This, friends, is what has unfortunately happened! This is the explanation; and it behooves us to prepare for the attack with which this sinister act is almost certain to be followed up!
"Let every man buckle on his armour and take his appointed place! I go myself to examine these prisoners and investigate the extent of the injury done to our great chariot of the skies. I shall quickly return to lead you against our treacherous foes. See to it that ye be ready—every man at his post, every officer at the head of his men!"
There was an outburst of cheering, and then the king and his chief officers left the hall and the assembly broke up, melting away in little groups amid a buzz of hurried talk in undertones.
"Would you like to come with us in our aerial warships?" Milona asked of his young guests.
A very emphatic reply in the affirmative satisfied him that there was no room for doubt upon the subject.
"Then come with me," he said, and the three went out, closely followed by Tralorna, Myontis, and other friends.
He led them to another great hall—the armoury he called it— where were to be seen countless numbers of suits of most curious armour. It looked at first sight like glass; yet it was neither heavy nor brittle as glass is. Whatever the material might be, the appearance was certainly very striking and beautiful, the surface glistening as does that of polished glass or crystal. Moreover, there were many different kinds, some being tinted, some opalescent, and some, again, exquisitely ornamented by floral and other designs seemingly worked into the material.
These curious armour suits were not strange to either of the prince's guests. They had seen them and worn them—or something like them—on board the "Ramaylia," and knew their purpose and how to make use of them, as also was the case with the even more curious weapons which were ranged around in stacks. These were what we should term, perhaps, electric guns and pistols—though they had very little resemblance to our firearms. Rather they had the appearance of mere light, metal wands, oddly forked at the tops. They were called "rambas," which is a word that may be rendered as "flash-guns" or "lightning wands." Finally, there were transparent shields to complete the outfit.
During the voyage to Mars both Bruce and Maurice had been shown these weapons and armour, and instructed in their use, so that what they now saw caused them no surprise save that they were struck with the extreme beauty of some of the designs. In general character the suits very much resembled the armour in use upon our own planet in the Middle Ages. And just as in those days some knights went to great expense to procure armour richly inlaid or damascened with silver and gold, so here some suits were much more elaborate than others.
The main use, however, was in every case the same—they were worn as a protection against the "fire-flashes" or discharges of electric fluid which there took the place of our bullets and shells.
In the course of their journey from Earth, the prince had explained matters to his young guests as follows:
"The use of explosives in warfare," he said, "has been universally abandoned on our globe long ages ago. The invention of airships rendered large cannon and artillery useless. They were too heavy to be carried in the airships themselves, and became of no use upon the ground below. Take the case of a battery of great guns, for instance. An airship could poise exactly overhead and rain down terrible explosives upon it with scarce any chance of being hit by any missile sent up. Even if guns could be trained to aim exactly overhead, it is obvious that the ultimate result must be to bring down those missiles again on to the firers' heads. Serious fighting under such conditions, therefore, was reduced to an absurdity.
"But the real reason of the abandonment of explosives lay in the discovery of a means of firing them off by wireless current.* From the time that this discovery was made it became impossible to store quantities of ammunition. Any evil-disposed person could fire such stores from a distance, causing terrible and widespread ruin, without fear of detection or after punishment.
(*This, it may be noted, is no mere fanciful idea, but a state of things predicted and expected in the future among ourselves by some of our best-known scientists. Indeed, some of the mysterious, terrible explosions which have taken place recently in France and England—notably at Woolwich Arsenal—have been attributed in certain quarters to some such cause.)
"Thus it came about that within a very short time the manufacture of explosives of every or any kind had to be abandoned. People were afraid to store even the smallest quantities; and the various methods of manufacturing them were in time numbered amongst the lost arts.
"Inventors then turned their attention to weapons designed to utilise the natural forces which, as you have explained to me, your people know under such names as electricity, magnetism, X- rays, and so on. A great scientist discovered a new force— another 'ray,' so to speak—which does not kill, but only numbs the nerves—and this it is that we use in our weapons. The 'flash' renders a person struck by it—or any other living thing—unconscious for a period of a few hours, after which, if not otherwise hurt, consciousness returns and there is no harm done. This kind of weapon has been universally adopted by all the civilised people of our planet for war purposes. Any nation or person using any other is looked upon as barbarous, and treated accordingly."
It may be added to this, to explain the use of suits of armour, that as glass is—as most persons are aware—a protection against discharges of electricity, so was the glass-like substance of which the armour was composed an effectual protection against the "flash" of the forked wands. The shield was useful as an additional guard for the face and bead; and being transparent, had the advantage of not obstructing the view of the combatants.
Such was the nature of the war-outfit with which the young prince and his friends now proceeded to equip themselves. The rich court dresses which they had only donned a couple of hours before were thrown aside, and they presently issued from the palace gates, a goodly looking little band, "in shining armour" arrayed.
THE sun was near to setting as King Amando's forces formed up on the tableland lying between the palace and the place where the "Ramaylia" had alighted.
Our two young adventurers, gazed with wonder and admiration upon the scene which burst upon them.
Around, were rank upon rank of men in armour, which the sun's rays had now turned to a glistening, deep golden red. They were drawn up in soldierly fashion in long lines, their shields especially glittering with every movement almost like immense diamonds.
Above them, anchored by ropes, and swaying in the slight breeze, were numbers of aerial war vessels, also arranged in exact order, with certain intervals between each, according to the size of the craft. The various grades could be distinguished, and Milona proceeded to point them out to his guests. There were two lines of ponderous-looking structures, evidently very strongly built, and especially designed for ramming their opponents. These corresponded to our battleships. Then there were larger numbers of lighter-built craft, which might be likened to our cruisers. Round these were smaller kinds, scouting vessels, and others, just as we have torpedo-boats, gunboats, destroyers, despatch vessels, tenders, etc.
In every case the hull was composed of metal with a polished surface, almost as smooth as glass, which, in turn, reflected the beams of the setting sun, and added their part to the wondrous scene.
But one thing was noticeable throughout—there was no vessel in any way comparable to the "Ramaylia" for size. It was easy to perceive that that colossal aerostat must in itself be almost a match for the whole of these others put together. Milona sighed as he looked towards her, lying where she had landed; for word had already been passed round that their foes had so far succeeded in their sinister plot as to place her, for the time, at any rate, hors de combat.
Milona and his little party were standing in a group by themselves. They were awaiting a signal from the king, who was consulting with his chief officers a little distance away.
The young prince drew their attention to a bright star which could now be seen above the setting sun. It was very noticeable, not only for its brightness—which rendered it visible before the other stars were out—but on account of its distinctly blue tint.
"Behold, my friends," he said, "behold your home amongst the stars! Behold the planet which you call Earth, and which we call Lokris, our evening star!"
It can be imagined the feelings with which our two stowaways gazed at their distant home, now so many millions of miles away. Who could say whether they would ever land upon its surface again?
Their reflections were cut short by the next words of their young host. "Do you see that bank of clouds just above the horizon?" he asked in sudden excitement.
"I see it," said Bruce. "What of it?"
"Look steadily, and tell me if you cannot see something unusual about it."
"I see what you mean!" Maurice exclaimed. "It is rising dead against the wind."
"Precisely, friend Maurice. You have hit it. Now let me add something—our enemies are concealed in the midst of that cloud."
"How do you know?" Bruce asked, astonished.
"I feel assured it must be so. Faronda, the leader of our enemies, is a clever inventor. Formerly he was reigning monarch— as vassal to the king my father—over the country of Lakaydia. My father deposed him for conspiring and intriguing against him, and sent him into exile. From time to time reports have come to us that he was consoling himself and occupying his time by taking up scientific research and experiment. I remember hearing a rumour, just before we left, that he had invented some means of forming artificial clouds, and even of making them travel against the wind. While we were absent, he returned to his own country and started the rebellion of which you have heard, the object of which is to regain his position as King of Lakaydia.
"Now, I have already learned, since our return, that this man has brought one or two of his new inventions into use in the course of the campaign, and with considerable advantage, too, to his own side. But of this rumoured artificial cloud nothing had thus far been heard or seen. Something now tells me that yonder cloud is not natural; and you can see for yourselves that there is something very unusual in the way in which it is rising up dead against the wind. Storm clouds sometimes act thus, as we know, but not exactly as this one is doing. My belief, then, is that this is a great plan, a grand coup, of our clever, wily foe, by which, having already disabled our great airship, he hopes to surprise us and effect her capture. He has no airship larger than any of these you see around you; and he knows that the side which can make use of the 'Ramaylia' is bound to win. I must go and warn my father."
He left the group and went over to King Amando. The two drew aside for a few minutes, talking earnestly and gazing at intervals through powerful glasses. Then Milona came hurrying back to his party.
"My father so far agrees with me that he is going to take up his positions, and send out a scouting party under myself to ascertain what that cloud really means."
"But I don't see—" Bruce began.
"You will presently. There goes the signal. Now, my friends, follow me, and let us show them all that we are the smartest of any ship's company here!"
Up in the air, with a shrill hiss and scream, what seemed to be a rocket went suddenly soaring. As it reached the upper air it burst, and from it there appeared something which caught the sun's rays and opened out, forming a miniature "rainbow," which gradually spread north and south. Another rocket—if rockets they were—rushed up with the same screaming hiss, and lo! another beautiful "rainbow" appeared, which intersected the first one and spread east and west.
At the sound of the first rocket the swaying airships sank slowly but gracefully to the ground. It was just as though each one had been quietly pulled down by invisible cords. Rope ladders were seen hanging from their sides, and up these the waiting soldiers swarmed.
In a marvellously short space of time the whole fleet rose again, and the larger craft, circling round, took their places in the form of a cross, following the lines marked out by the "rainbows." The scouts and smaller craft trailed round from point to point, joining them into a complete circle, and in this form the whole array moved forward and took up a position between the "Ramaylia" and the advancing cloud. This evolution was very cleverly carried out, and formed a majestic sight.
The two chums, with their faithful servitor Micky in attendance, had scrambled somehow on board Milona's airship, following close at his heels, and almost tumbling into her at the critical moment just as she rose into the air again. She was the leading vessel of a squadron of twenty scouting craft, of which Milona was the commander, and her name was the Martian equivalent for "Wasp."
They were compactly built structures, designed for great speed, and very strong, their hulls being made of the same metal, so remarkable for its strength and lightness, as that which formed the outer shell of the "Ramaylia."
King Amando was in the largest of the heavy fighting craft, which kept her station in the centre of the cross, but raised above it, so as to have an uninterrupted view on all sides. This battleship was named the "Kondris," which, in the Martian language, meant the planet we know as Saturn. From this position the king issued orders by means of the curious rockets, which showed rainbow-like lines by day, and coloured light by night.
Several of these were now shooting upwards with their shrill, rushing noise, with the result that a moment later there could be seen what seemed to be tremulous flags or banners, with coloured patterns and devices, which remained for a while floating in the breeze, finally melting into the air.
"It is our signal! Away!" cried Milona. The officers with him gave some sharp, short commands, and ere the two chums well know what had happened they found that their vessel was at the head of two lines of similar craft, all speeding away at a great rate in the direction of the cloud. They sailed along in the shape of the letter V, Milona's vessel, the "Wasp," being in front, at the point of the V.
It was getting nearly dusk, and now the chums saw a wondrous sight. There were two moons chasing each other, so to speak, across the sky. As yet the light from them was faint, but it was increasing as the glow from the sun died down. A curious thing was that both these moons seemed to travel so fast that their motion was quite perceptible.
The scouting party passed rapidly onwards towards the slowly advancing bank of cloud. The landscape below was now wrapped in shadow, and little could be seen of its features. The cloud in front, too, seemed to grow darker as they advanced, and, if anything, to become denser and more impenetrable to the sight.
Milona now signalled to his squadron to reduce speed and spread out.
"Our orders are not to fight, but to ascertain whether our foes are concealed in that cloud, and, if so, how many of their airships there are," he said to Bruce. "But it looks so dense, I'm afraid we shall have to go right into it, and chance the fighting, if we are to find out what we want to know."
Looking astern, Amando's fleet could be just seen, though it was so far away as to be scarcely visible to the naked eye. Ahead of them was the cloud, now showing as a great black mass, towering up into mountainous folds. The nearer they drew to it, the more forbidding, the more menacing did it appear, and looking to right and to left it became apparent that the other craft were hanging back. They were disinclined to go too close to this vapoury mystery.
"They are afraid!" cried Milona scornfully. "We will show them the way!"
"I must say the whole affair looks precious uncanny," observed Maurice. "The closer you get to it the less is it like real, honest cloud. If it is artificial, as you suspected, prince, may it not be some poisonous vapour? It may be as well to be careful."
"H'm! Perhaps you are right. It may be as well to be cautious," Milona admitted. "We will have the cover over. We have a supply of liquid air on board especially for emergencies."
A sliding cover was pulled over the deck, and all outlets by which foul vapour could enter were made secure. Then the airship was steered quietly and cautiously towards the cloud bank.
As they reached its fringe, its appearance grew more and more sinister. Dense masses were seen swirling up, curling and writhing as though, as Bruce put it, they came out of the mouth of some awful crater, which was vomiting forth its deadly breath in the form of these foul vapours.
Suddenly, as they were peering through the little look-out tower, they were aware of a great shape overhead, darker and more solid- looking than the rest. Next they saw two massive black chains, swinging one on each side of them, at the end of each being a huge "horseshoe" magnet.
The two magnets swung about for a brief space as might great serpents seeking blindly for prey. A moment or two later they had rushed together with a resounding snap, like giant pincers, holding the hull of the airship between them.
Then the mysterious dark shape overhead moved swiftly onwards into the depths of the cloud, towing with it the captured "Wasp" and its helpless occupants.
TRULY it was an unpleasant surprise for those on board the scouting airship when they found their craft being ignominiously towed off into the inky depths of that mysterious cloud.
The two chums stared at each other. Milona stared at his friends, Tralona and Myontis, and then at his chief officer, Oleron, who mutely stared back. For a brief space no word was spoken. So unexpected had the occurrence been, so overwhelming the disaster, that for a while no one could think of anything to say.
Milona and his lieutenant, however, were thinking hard; and the prince's look conveyed a question: "Can we break loose?" And Oleron, divining the unspoken query, shook his head. He could not, he went on to say, see how, situated as they were, it would be possible to get free from the grip of those great magnets.
Milona made up his mind at once.
"Then," said he, "we must slip out. If he has captured my craft he has not yet caught me! But we must be quick! This cloud, which led to our capture, must aid us to escape! We must leave them the empty vessel, and get clear of her before they tow us out of the cloud!"
Sharp, quick orders were issued, and the crew—some twenty all told—caught up the flying apparatus provided for emergencies, and each fitted to himself the one allotted to him. Some were motor-wings, some were wings only, while some again were little more than a kind of parachute. There were in addition a couple of machines which might be termed traction-flyers. Milona and Oleron took charge of these, after fitting wings on their own shoulders.
Two long ropes were uncoiled, a trap door in the bottom of the craft was opened, and the whole of her company slipped out, holding on to the ropes in two strings. At once they sank downwards, and were lost in the mist.
So quietly and quickly had this manoeuvre been carried out that it was but a few minutes from the time when the great magnetic pincers had closed on the luckless "Wasp," to the moment when its crew dropped noiselessly out of sight. Evidently their captors had no suspicion of what had happened, for they went onwards towing the abandoned craft with them.
But though the crew had thus neatly given their foes the slip, they were by no means "out of the wood," or rather out of the cloud. Moreover, their course had been an erratic one, and now that the leaders came to consider the matter, they could not tell which was "the way out." The night had closed in, and in the depths of the cloud it was black darkness itself. They were in a kind of maze, which it was easier to flounder about in than get out of.
Milona's hope was that they might encounter one of the other scouting airships. These would, he argued, be on the look-out for them. On the other hand, they dared not make any signals which might be heard by the enemy.
The airship's company were now in two "strings," as already mentioned, an arrangement which prevented their becoming separated in the black vapour. Those who had motor-wings took their places at each end of the two ropes and kept them suspended and drawn out horizontally. Those who had wings only, or parachutes, held on, or fastened themselves, one behind the other, as swimmers in water might rest themselves by holding on to ropes supported by corks or other floats.
The two motor-machines referred to were in charge of Milona and Oleron respectively, at the front end of each rope. Their function was to act as aerial traction-engines for the whole party, assisting in keeping them together, and enabling those with wings to store up their energies. They worked noiselessly, and, therefore, were not likely to betray their presence to their foes.
The word was quietly passed round, and the men arranged their positions, the motors were started, and the two strings moved forward through the cloud in the direction in which it was supposed their friends were looking for them. As it turned out, however, they were so completely befogged that they took a course almost exactly opposite to the one they intended.
As they went cautiously onward, in what they thought was the right direction, the mist gradually grew thinner. Presently they came to its fringe, and for the first time were able to get a view ahead and below, and to look for landmarks. And then Milona saw that they had gone wrong. Instead of going towards their friends, they had wandered into—or rather over—the enemy's country.
Fortunately there was no hostile squadron waiting there to receive them—as might easily have been the case—but that was a situation which might be altered at any moment. One thing was certain—they were a long way from where they had expected to be.
There was a pause to allow the leaders to reconnoitre, and while they were surveying their surroundings through powerful glasses, their companions had a breathing space, and a chance to compare notes.
"Quare ways o' travellin'!" grumbled Mike, discontentedly. He had been fitted with a parachute dress—not wings, for they would have been of no use to him, and would only have been in the way. "I dunno what t' be up to!"
"You've got to hang on, Micky, for dear life—that's all for the present," said Bruce.
"Shure it puts me in moind ov washin' day in me native home," Mike declared. "We be all hangin' out, loike the washin' on the clothes line. If I was t' lave go wud I be kilt entoirely?"
"Worse! Mangled probably—like the washing, eh Micky?" Maurice put in.
Mike grinned. "It's Misther Maurice as loikes t' have his little joke," he chuckled. "Shure I wish he cud put a little starch into this rope an' make it a bit stiffer t' hould on to. It's oncommonly wobbly!"
But there was more serious business on hand. Milona made a sign for silence, and pointed to something in the distance. It was a mountain peak, and near it, under the shade of a precipitous rock, a dark shadow could be seen swaying like a captive balloon. Evidently an airship at anchor! He looked again through his glass, and immediately showed signs of excitement.
"Why!" he exclaimed, "I believe it is our aerial warship 'Amando'—the one I hear Faronda captured while we have been away!"
"I believe you are right, Prince," said Oleron, after a careful scrutiny. "It certainly looks like the 'Amando,' which was captured from us by treachery at the very beginning of this warfare. I had heard that Faronda was using her as his flagship."
"Well, she's anchored there alone at present, that is certain, and by the look of her there are not many men on board. It may be that he has left her there for some reason while he went with some smaller and handier vessels to try this new experiment with the cloud."
He turned to his two young guests:
"Look over there! That is our airship—one of our largest and best, next to the 'Ramaylia'—and named after my royal father. She was captured by Faronda, in our absence, in the course of the unexpected and treacherous attack with which he began this shameful civil war. There she lies! And I don't think she can have her full crew on board, or we should see more people on her deck! What say you—shall we not try to re-take her?"
"Rather! If you think there's a chance!" answered Bruce.
"I should have a try like a shot—even if it's only a forlorn hope!" was Maurice's advice.
"It's roight ye are, sorr! Put us aboord an' we'll foight the spalpeens an' get yer ship back!" cried Mike, with such energy that he nearly lost his hold, and Maurice had to make a grab at him to save him from falling.
"I'm going to risk it!" Milona declared, with sudden impetuosity. "We can circle round in the shadow of yonder cliffs, get to the other side of the peak, and come upon her over the shoulder of the mountain. If we can only manage to surprise her, and get a footing before Faronda returns, we ought to be successful!"
There was but one moon now to be seen; the other one had set. The one that remained was rather low, and was shining upon one side of a high, rocky ridge, which ran from near where the airship was lying, almost to where they were.
The shadow on the further side was very deep, and promised to afford good cover to the attacking party.
First, Milona drifted downwards into the shadow, then made his way carefully but rapidly in its concealment in the direction in which the airship had been sighted.
Looking down, the two chums saw that the country below was mountainous, and showed very few signs of being inhabited. Here and there a solitary light indicated the whereabouts of some isolated dwelling, and that was all.
A very extraordinary sight the little band presented as they sailed along in the friendly shadow.
In front of each line was one of the "aerial motors," one in charge of Milona and the other of Oleron. Strange, uncanny- looking machines were these, apparently mere skeleton frameworks, fitted with wings and spirals, worked by powerful motors placed amidships. They were designed upon the glider, or aeroplane, principle, and were capable of gliding through the air at a great rate. The wings were "gliders," too, and were little used—as wings—when once started, their chief purpose being to help the machine to start or to act as "hoverers" when a halt was called. These aerial traction-engines, or locomotives, as they may be termed, were specially adapted to their present purpose, as they could pull considerable loads after them in the air at a good speed, and at the same time could be folded up, as it were, flat for stowing away on board larger air craft.
Bruce and Maurice were seated in swing-like seats just behind Milona. As already noted, they were wearing wings with small motors attached, which, however, had been given them more by way of precaution than anything else, as they were not yet adepts in their use. In case one of them had lost his hold, however, by touching a button, the electric motor would set the wings in motion, and enable the wearer to keep up in the air without exerting his own strength. More than that he could not hope to do without practice. Mike was seated, in similar fashion, between the two; and of the three he was the one who enjoyed their novel experience the least. He was wearing a parachute attachment sufficient to break his fall in case of accident and enable him to reach the ground below without broken bones. But, judging by his looks, his faith in it was not very great.
Others of the party had attached themselves to one or other of the ropes by straps and catches under the arms. Those who had wings kept them outstretched, and aided to support the rope for the benefit of the others; while the leaders supplied the locomotive power.
Bruce and Maurice entered with zest into the spirit of the thing, and were thoroughly enjoying the adventure. Everything that took place, every fresh move, every readjustment of weights, attracted their attention; and they found plenty to interest them in noticing the behaviour of their companions, and observing their different methods of handling—if the term may be used—their wings and other equipments.
A short journey of a quarter of an hour or so brought them close to the shoulder of the hill round the corner of which the airship lay. So far nothing had happened to interfere with their plans. In the direction from which they had come, the cloud they had emerged from could still be seen travelling slowly away from them. What might be hidden away in its depths was as much a mystery as it had been at first.
A short halt was called, while Milona and his lieutenant conferred. Then they issued brief instructions to their followers; some of the latter, who had attached themselves to the tow ropes, loosened the fastenings ready for action, and the "march," if such it may be termed, was resumed.
This time they worked their way upwards till they were just above the top of the hill, and high enough to see the object of their daring attack below them. Then Milona gave the signal, and the whole company swept downwards with a sudden rush, and fell upon the deck of the airship like a human avalanche.
SUCH was the impetuosity with which Milona hurled his little company upon the airship they were attacking that he came near to defeating his own plan.
Certainly he succeeded in what may be termed the first move in the game—that of gaining a "footing" upon her deck—but the band "arrived" with such violence that some of his own followers were half-stunned by the shock. Fortunately for them, however, those they cannoned against—as happened in many cases—like human projectiles—were in even worse case. They lay where they had fallen, unable to get up again.
One of the aerial traction machines crashed against an upstanding "spiral," demolished the wireless telegraphing gear, and then collapsed; and Milona himself was entangled in the wreck. Some of the defenders who were close at hand, perceiving his plight, threw themselves upon him, and he would have fared badly if Maurice and Mike had not been there to aid him. They had somehow been unhurt in the crash, and Mike set to work with gusto. With no other weapons than his fists, he sent two of their opponents flying right and left; while Maurice, imitating his example, accounted for two more. This gave their plucky young leader time to get clear, and take a look round to see how things were going.
Those of the defenders who had been on deck at the time of the sudden attack had been taken at a disadvantage. Having no fear or expectation of anything of the kind, they none of them had with them any of their weapons called rambas—a fortunate point in the assailants' favour. But they outnumbered their attackers, and, for a while, fought stubbornly; moreover, they gave the alarm to their comrades who were below, and who at once made endeavours to reach the deck. Here, again, chance favoured the daring band, for those below were hindered by the wreck of the broken machine, which lay right over the principal hatchway. The motor had not been stopped by the fall, and was still working the great wings, which were flapping up and down like those of a wounded bird, beating down upon the swarm of defenders who were trying to force their way on to the deck.
At another point, Oleron and Tralona were engaged in fastening down a smaller hatchway; and Bruce was aiding them by leading the fighting against the main portion of those on deck.
Like Maurice and Mike, he had, in the heat of the mêlée, either forgotten or disdained to use the Martian weapons which had been supplied to him. He perceived that those opposed to him had none of that kind, so, hastily dispensing with his motor-wings, which he flung aside, he snatched up a heavy wooden bar he had caught sight of, and, calling to those around him to follow, rushed like a whirlwind upon the foe. Using the bar as a club, he knocked one man over with it on his right, and sent another reeling on his left with a blow of his fist. One hot-headed fellow who tried to close with him he picked up and hurled on to the deck as if he had been a child.
At this he saw signs of the foe giving way in dismay, and called out to his followers to come and finish the fight. They responded to the call, and backed him up to such good purpose that they cleared the deck. Then Bruce, not a little surprised at his own success, paused and gazed about him.
Milona and his two companions, meantime, seeing that Bruce and those he was leading were well able to hold their own, had been confining their attention to the main hatch in the centre, and after a fierce struggle succeeded in securing it. Then they turned, hot and perspiring, to find that Oleron had fixed the other one, and that there were only a few defenders left, making a half-hearted resistance to the party led by Bruce. A minute or two later and these had been mastered, and the assailants found themselves undisputed masters of the deck.
"So far so good!" cried Milona delightedly. He stared with surprise and admiration at his three guests—so did Tralona, Myontis, Oleron, and the rest of the prince's followers. Even then, when they had so much need for prompt action, they could not but pause for a space to wonder at the prowess these three had shown in the hand-to-hand fights in which they had taken part. Not only the brawny Irishman—or Welshman—but the two young fellows themselves had exhibited what had appeared to the Martians to be extraordinary strength—so much so that they now stood regarding them with wonder and awe.
On their side, the three Britishers were not less surprised. The comparative ease with which, in the hand-to-hand struggle and wrestling bouts, they had "knocked out" their opponents—who had sometimes come upon them two to one—had been as much a revelation to them as it evidently was now to their Martian friends. And it may be as well to give here what they afterwards found to be the true explanation.
The answer to the puzzle lay in the fact that on Mars everything weighs lighter than upon Earth. That is to say, in the case of a man who weighs ten stone on Earth, he would weigh only about half that amount on Mars. But as his muscles remain just the same, they must naturally seem to be nearly twice as strong relatively. For one thing, he could pick up with ease, and almost toss about, another man whom he could scarcely lift at all on his own planet.
So it was here with our three visitors from Earth, though they were as yet only dimly conscious of the fact. It is true, since they landed from the "Ramaylia." they had been conscious of a peculiar feeling, something new and strange, a peculiar sense of lightness and ease. This they had put down to mere elation of spirit—the natural excitement inspired by their wonderful surroundings. It had never occurred to them that it proceeded from what amounted to an access of muscular strength—that it was because they could lift their legs, for instance, when walking, with so much more ease and so much less fatigue.
Till now events had followed one another so rapidly that they had not had time to analyse these new feelings. But the fight on the deck had brought the thing home to them; and the wonderment of their friends confirmed their own impressions. Certainly the surprise of the Martians was natural in the circumstances. They had seen what had seemed to them to be prodigious feats of strength, performed before their eyes, by these three, whom they had never suspected capable of them during the time they had known them.
"You are young giants!" exclaimed Milona in amaze. "And your strength is a wonder! Whatever does it mean? Why, my friends, have you hidden this wonderful strength of yours from me all this time?"
And neither Bruce nor Maurice could answer the question just then. They felt embarrassed—very like blushing, in fact—at the attention they had drawn upon themselves, and tried to turn the matter off.
"We did our best," said Bruce modestly. "We learned to 'box,' as we call it, when we were at school. All our people learn that sort of thing, more or less."
"I never heard of any school where they can teach one to fight as you have fought here!" was Milona's comment. "I wish I knew of such; I would go there at once and take a course of lessons! At least," he added with a frown, "I would go as soon as I got the chance. Just now we have all got something else to do."
Which observation brought their attention back to the business in hand, and their general position, which was scarcely less critical than before.
"We've yet got to reckon with all the crew who are packed in down below," Milona proceeded to point out. "So long as they are loose down there we cannot control the vessel. We cannot get at the machinery, and cannot move our capture from this spot. We shall simply remain here to be captured in our turn, when Faronda returns with his fleet—which may happen at any moment."
"We must 'take the bull by the horns,' as we say," Bruce answered. "Can we not partially open a hatch, so that they can only come up one or two at a time?"
"No use," said Milona, shaking his head decidedly. "Suppose they refuse to come up at all? Besides, that all takes time."
"Shure I'd shmoke 'em out!" said Mike.
"Why, now, I declare that's a good idea!" cried Milona. "It's the best I'm able to think of just now, anyway. Let us act upon it!"
Scarcely sooner said than done. The wrecked machine offered a lot of useful fuel, for the wings, in particular, were constructed from light material which would make a good bonfire. This was gathered together upon the metal deck and a light applied to it, and then Milona utilised the motor and fans in such a way as to drive the smoke down into one of the hatchways through a ventilating shaft. The manoeuvre was almost immediately successful. Overtures for capitulation came from the imprisoned crew; and conditions having been arranged, it was not long before they came trooping up, one or two at a time, on to the deck, where they were promptly bound and chained together.
The last to come up were those in charge of the machinery which worked the fans and spirals—a group of a dozen.
Milona looked at these men with surprise; and his face, usually so good humoured, grew dark and stern, as he recognised some of them. They had been in the service of King Amando.
"How do you come to be here—serving Faronda?" he demanded.
Their answer was that they had been captured with the ship and forced to obey their new master. And when Milona shook his head, and told them that he should bring them before the king, one, who turned out to be the officer in charge of them, pointed to the spirals which were still in full work.
"Prince," said he, "we guessed from what we heard that the king's followers were fighting to regain possession of the ship, and we were glad to think we should now be released, and able to serve our lawful master again; so we kept the engines going. The others would have prevented us; they wanted to stop the engines, and that, as you know, would have caused the craft to fall to the ground—probably in such a manner as would have swept you all off the deck. But I talked to my men, and they listened to my advice. We locked the doors and barricaded them, and kept the vessel in the air on an even keel. But for that I doubt if you would now be master of the ship! Isn't that true, friends?" he concluded.
The others noisily affirmed the truth of the statement; and when Milona looked at the scowling faces of the other prisoners he noted that none of them challenged it.
"What is your name, friend?" Milona asked of the one who had spoken. "I knew I had seen your face amongst my father's people, but I cannot recall your name."
"Well, Lukron, what, then, am I to understand? That you are willing, all of you, to take service again with me, and that you will swear to serve me faithfully?"
"That's what we wish, Prince."
Milona paused and eyed them keenly, one after the other; but not one flinched under his gaze. They were an honest-looking lot, and his scrutiny appeared satisfactory.
"I cannot promise you the king's pardon," he warned them, "but I will do my best to obtain it for you, in consideration of what you have now done, and if you serve me faithfully for the future. If you give me your promises on those terms I will trust you, and you can return to your duties."
The promises were quickly given, and with a cheer the men dived down the hatchway to resume the posts they had left—all, that is, save Lukron, who, after giving his subordinates their orders, craved permission to speak further with Milona.
"You have gained the ship, Prince," he said, "but if you have no more forces near at hand than I see here around you, you will have some trouble in escaping recapture by Faronda. He, or some of his people, will be back here soon. Perhaps I can give you a useful hint or two, if you will allow me?"
"Speak, then, Lukron. If your advice, or suggestion, or whatever it may be, turns out useful, you shall receive a fitting reward later on."
"First, I would suggest sending all your prisoners below out of the way, and under good guard."
"Good! We'll clear them out at once!"
In a few minutes the prisoners had been marched down, and placed under lock and key by Oleron and his men, to whom the ship was familiar ground. When this operation had been performed, Lukron was invited to speak again.
"This ship was left here," he explained, "to serve as a temporary prison for the first prisoners Faronda might take in the surprise attack he had planned to make, aided by his artificial cloud. Now, if he meets with any success, he will send his captures back here in batches, and probably in a small airship, to get them out of his way for the moment. My suggestion is that you dress yourselves in the dresses similar to those the prisoners you have just taken are wearing—there are plenty of spare outfits on board—and when one of Faronda's airships appears you must answer its signals, and receive it, as though you were the people who had been left in charge for the purpose. Then, when they come alongside, and have made fast, you can surprise them, capture their vessel, and if they have any of your friends prisoners set them at liberty, and so increase your own strength."
"H'm! There may be something in the idea!" said Milona musingly. "But—how are we to answer their signals?"
"That I can show you. Their signal codes are in the state-room— and, besides, I know them pretty well myself by this time!"
Milona turned away and held a brief conference with his friends before saying yea or nay to this proposition.
"What think you?" he asked "Shall we trust this man, and try his plan, or would it be wiser to be satisfied with having re- captured this ship? It is, as you can guess, worth to us several small vessels of the 'Wasp' type. Shall we be content and head for home, taking our chance of somehow making our way through the enemy's fleet?"
After a little discussion, it was decided to remain where they were, and try the plan suggested by Lukron. Tralona and Myontis, it now appeared, had both known the man in the past, and had had a very good opinion of him.
"I think we can trust him; he looks honest," said Bruce.
"I think so, too," Milona agreed.
"I like his looks, and I like the scheme," Maurice declared. "Wouldn't it be a feather in our caps if it turned out anything like what he has indicated—and I don't see why it shouldn't!"
So they set to work upon the necessary preparations for carrying out the scheme.
WHEN their arrangements were completed the deck of the "Amando" presented, to any one looking down on it from a distance, very much the same appearance as when Milona had first caught sight of her from the edge of the fateful cloud.
Upon her deck a few people were to be seen dressed in glistening purple armour—that being the colour Faronda had adopted as the distinguishing mark of his followers. They lounged or lay about in idle fashion, as though they had nothing to do or think about beyond waiting for further orders.
Bruce and Maurice made friends with Lukron, to whom they took a liking; and after he and Milona had studied the signal code together, he helped to pass the time by relating to them some of his adventures since his capture, with the airship, by Faronda.
Suddenly a look-out reported something in sight just outside the now distant cloud. All that could be seen, at first, were some lights high in the air; but presently, when powerful glasses were brought to bear upon the objects, it could be seen that there were two airships, one above the other.
Then Milona exclaimed excitedly:
"It is the 'Wasp'—and the craft above her must be the one which captured us! I wonder if they have found out yet that they have been towing an empty ship?"
"If they haven't already made the discovery they will make it now," Bruce laughed. "I can see some people climbing down the chains to her. Now they are on the deck cover—and now they've found their way in through one of the manholes. If this is their first visit of inspection, I'd give something to see their faces! I wonder if Faronda is on board?"
"I think not," said Lukron. "He sailed in a large battleship called the 'Dyrama.'"
"I know her," said Milona. "She is named," he explained to the chums, "after the city of Dyrama, the chief town of the country of which Faronda used to be king."
"And of which he is king now." Lukron quietly added. "The unhappy citizens know it only too well; and were praying, when I last saw them, for the day when King Amando would return and send the usurper back into exile. Faronda is a cruel, unscrupulous tyrant; yet," he added, thoughtfully, "he is a man with strange gifts and powers! I can say, as an engineer, that some of his inventions are wonderfully clever."
"Well, that is certainly true," observed Milona. "Though he is our enemy, the king my father acknowledges his cleverness. Take that cloud business, for instance—and that magnetic contrivance with which he captured my poor little 'Wasp' so neatly!"
"Ah! I heard him talking about those inventions, and the way he was going to surprise you with them," Lukron remarked.
"Well, what vessel is that yonder—and who is in charge of her?" Milona asked.
"That, Prince, is the 'Eaglet,' and the officer in charge is named Allonto."
"Oho!" cried the young Prince. "Allonto! I know him! A good soldier, but a terribly conceited person. I shall have some fun with him by and by, if he comes alongside here! I expect he thought he had caught me safely enough; and I can imagine his pompous delight! I can also fancy his astonishment when he found I had outwitted him and slipped through his fingers!"
"They are coming this way," Oleron warned. "Who is to answer their hail?"
"Lukron is to play that part," was Milona's answer. "Allonto would probably recognise you or me—by the voice, if by nothing else."
"They are signalling. What shall I say, Prince?" Lukron asked.
"Ask them what fish they have caught," Maurice suggested.
Milona laughed. "Well, that will do as well as anything else," he agreed.
Lukron flashed the question from the signalling mast. A few moments later little answering flashes of light played about the "Eaglet's" mast, which Lukron interpreted as they appeared.
"We've caught nothing but an empty shell," he read out. "Fish escaped. Have you seen anything of it?"
"Ask him what sort of fish it was," said Bruce.
The question was sent, and when the answer came back it was the Martian equivalent for "A royal sturgeon and a lot of small fry."
"We're some of the small fry," Bruce chuckled. "Now we've got to turn anglers ourselves, and catch the fishermen. What bait can we use?"
"Why not try Mike?" Maurice asked, with an innocent air. "He's a broth of a bhoy, and has a very taking way with him."
"Here they come! To your places, all of you!" cried Milona, and he made for a deckhouse, where Tralona, Myontis, and his three guests joined him. Here they were out of sight themselves, while able, from an open window, to see and hear all that went forward.
Of the Prince's men, some were hidden away here and there ready to rush out at a given signal; but a few were lounging about.
The "Eaglet" drew near, unsuspiciously, dragging with it the captured "Wasp." She made fast alongside the "Amando," and the officer in charge—a big fellow, evidently, as Milona had said, very pompous and full of self-importance—climbed on board with a number of his men.
He was greatly surprised to see Lukron; and asked where the officer was who had been left in charge.
"He's in his cabin, sir," returned Lukron, coolly. "Probably asleep. I am in charge."
"That's an unusual proceeding, isn't it? He'll be reprimanded sharply enough if our royal master hears of it."
"How did the magnets work, sir?" Lukron asked.
"Magnificently, my good fellow! Did the trick splendidly! Caught—a—what do you think? The 'Wasp'—yes, with Prince Milona himself on board; though we didn't guess it at the time. But our prisoners slipped out somehow; and it was only when we came to examine our prize that we found out who had been in her. Now I want you to—"
The rest of the speech was cut short. There was heard a shrill whistle, and there followed a rush of armed men. Some closed round the officer and his men, while others—amongst them the two chums—swarmed over the side on to the smaller vessel. This time the forked wands, or "rambas," were brought into play on both sides; but the ultimate result was never in doubt. Milona's friends, flushed with their late success, and anxious to pay off the "Eaglet" men for having captured the "Wasp," carried everything before them. In a few minutes the struggle was over, and the victors found themselves in possession of their own vessel, as well as of the one which had made a prize of her.
Allonto's astonishment, when he saw Milona, and found how matters stood, can be better imagined than described. For a time, at least, all his self-importance disappeared, and he looked very limp.
"But the battle isn't over yet," he muttered darkly, by way of consolation. "There will be something presently you little expect! We shall see! We shall see!"
The victors, however, were in high spirits, which became higher when, an hour later, another of Faronda's airships appeared in the distance. She signalled to them that she had prisoners on board, and that they were to get quarters in readiness for them.
"The quarters are ready and waiting, my friends!" remarked Milona, grimly. "But not for those you are thinking of!"
This time there was a hotter and longer fight; and at one time Milona's party seemed on the point of being driven back, when, by some means, their friends who were prisoners broke loose and attacked their captors in the rear. A fierce hand-to-hand conflict was the result, and in this the three Britishers again performed feats which were the wonder alike of friends and foes.
When it was over, the deck of their last capture looked a very gruesome affair, till it was explained that, after all, though there seemed to be many dead bodies lying about, no one had been actually killed. Later on all would return to consciousness, and be none the worse for their experience. The worst off were those who had been knocked about in the fray and were suffering from bad bruises. Amongst these were our heroes, whose impetuosity had carried them into the thick of the fight. They had not come off scathless; but they made light of the hard knocks they had received.
Milona was sympathetic, and spoke appreciatively of the help they had rendered.
"It's what we came for—to court adventure," said Bruce. "We've had our first taste of warfare as carried on on your planet, and we're jolly well delighted! However, how are we going to get back, Prince? You've got too many prisoners, I'm thinking, to be altogether pleasant! They will be an encumbrance in any case—and may prove to be a danger. At the same time, I guess we can't remain here; I should not feel particularly delighted if we fell into Faronda's clutches! He'll have no particular love for us after these little tricks we've played him?"
"You are right, friend Bruce," Milona returned gravely. "We had better not tempt fortune any longer, but try to get away. It will be dawn in little more than an hour's time, and we've got to run the gauntlet of Faronda's whole fleet of aerial warships. We shall have a better chance of getting through in the dark than in daylight. I will give orders to make a start at once, before any more of the enemy's scouts show up."
The prisoners they had rescued made a welcome addition to their small numbers, and were useful to man the smaller craft.
A little later the start was made, and the "Amando," with the "Wasp" and the other two vessels in attendance, rose in the air, and set a straight course for home.
They showed no lights, and as there was now no moon, they had fair hopes that, "with luck," they might elude the enemy's ships, which they knew must lie somewhere in front of them.
As to what had been going on in their absence they knew nothing. The friends they had rescued could not tell them much beyond the fact that there had been isolated conflicts here and there, in which, no doubt, captures had been made, and prisoners taken, on both sides.
The little squadron glided forward cautiously, yet swiftly, like dark shadows, scarcely visible in the deep darkness which there, as here, precedes the dawn.
A stiff breeze had sprung up, and this would probably, they reckoned, assist in dispersing the artificial cloud; though, in the circumstances, they would now rather have welcomed its presence than otherwise had they run into it, for the sake of the concealment it would have afforded.
Presently, Milona, looking down, managed to distinguish some lights which he knew, and which formed a landmark.
"We are half-way, now!" he exclaimed. "With luck we shall slip through yet, and reach Nitalda before dawn!"
But even as he spoke there came a blinding glare from the right. Almost immediately another startling gleam flashed out from the left. Then others appeared, above, below, almost everywhere in front of them, all trained upon the little group of airships, and lighting them up with a dazzling glare.
They were the searchlights of Faronda's whole fleet, which had suddenly appeared in front of them, barring the way to the City of Nitalda!
IT was a trying situation, that in which Prince Milona and his daring band now found themselves. It was something more than tantalising to have their high hopes thus suddenly disappointed. They had already accomplished so much that night! Captured themselves, they had contrived to give their captors the slip, and had ended by not only taking their own ship, but had seized three of the enemy's vessels, with a number of prisoners, and rescued many of their own people into the bargain.
Truly a very creditable night's work! And now, when they were already halfway on their road to home, it seemed as if they were fated to see all their work undone, and to undergo, after all, the fate which they thought they had so cleverly escaped!
Yet what hope was there of being able to elude this last danger? How could they, with their weakly manned craft, hampered, too, with prisoners, run the gauntlet of a great fleet of airships of all sizes and kinds, opposed to them in the proportion of something like twenty to one?
"I'm afraid our luck's run out at last!" muttered Bruce ruefully. "It's jolly hard lines! I wonder where all King Amando's fleet have gone to, and what has been going on?"
"Looks to me as if Faronda's got the worst of it, and is in retreat, and we've been unlucky enough to meet him on his way back," Maurice suggested. "But, if so, our friends ought not to be very far away. Surely they must be following up their retreating enemies—if retreating they are."
"H'm! That's the difficulty. We don't know what has happened," Bruce rejoined. "If we only knew that that was the case for a fact, I suppose the prince would make a rush and try to get through, in the hope that we should not have very far to go before meeting with friends. Hullo! Where is the prince?" added Bruce, as he looked round.
"And, for the matter of that, where's Mike—and—a—Oleron, and— Lukron—and—why—we're almost the only ones on deck!"
Bruce and Maurice stared at each other as they gazed about them. There were only a few of the crew standing about; the others had vanished; why, or where, or how was a mystery. And these few were exposed to all the blaze of the searchlights turned on them from the dark, shadowy shapes hovering around, tenanted, no doubt, by enemies who were examining them through glasses and wondering who they were. For it has to be remembered that they were all dressed in the dark, purple armour suits of Faronda's followers.
Of a sudden, before they could say more, the door of a deckhouse amidships opened, and there issued from it something which made them wonder more than ever.
The "something" was a sort of procession, a small crowd of people in very rich costumes, who marched along in stately fashion and grouped themselves upon the deck. One tall, commanding figure in the centre was decked out in right royal costume; others appeared to be gorgeously attired lords-in-waiting, standing around him at a respectful distance. This central kingly figure strutted to and fro in the full glare of the searchlights, scanning what could be seen of the fleet in front, flinging his arms about, and pointing here and there, as though giving orders. Those around bowed obsequiously, turned about, and made elaborate motions, as though repeating the commands to subordinates; and yet all the time not a word was spoken—all this elaborate action was being carried on in dumb show!
As for Bruce and Maurice, they stood and gazed in helpless amazement. The whole affair was an extraordinary puzzle, and it did not tend to render it less bewildering when Maurice, looking narrowly at the gesticulating, regal figure in the middle, exclaimed under his breath:
"Micky! By all that's miraculous!"
"Micky it is—but keep quiet! We are playing a big game of what you call bluff," said some one near them in almost a whisper.
One of the gorgeously apparelled "lords" had sidled up, and was speaking to them while seemingly engaged in looking through a telescope.
"Prince!" exclaimed the two chums both at once. "What on—"
"Hush! It's a trick we're trying on. Micky, in figure, and height, and many other points, is very like our enemy Faronda, and I have had him dressed up in one of Faronda's court suits which we found on board. It is a duplicate—so Lukron declares— of the dress which Faronda himself is wearing to-night. These other dresses belong to his suite, and we are personating them. It's a grand idea! It only came to us a little while since, and I was dubious at first whether it would work. Lukron thought he could dress up Micky so as to look like Faronda. I doubted it; but I told him he might try it. When I went in, a minute or so ago, to see how he was getting on, I was so surprised to see how well he had succeeded that I determined to risk it. So I threw on this dress, the others arrayed themselves in similar ones, and out we came. I must say Micky is doing his part well. He looks exactly like Faronda. Faronda's own people won't know one from the other, especially at a distance."
"But how the dickens can such a masquerade help us in our present plight?" gasped Bruce.
"Wait a bit, my friend, and you shall see. We are signalling to Faronda's fleet. Their leader—in the shape of Micky—is sending them, through our signallers, their orders—telling them to make way for him. He is anxious to take charge of the rear-guard himself, and so afford his fleet a better chance to retreat in good order. Isn't it a self-sacrificing—heroic—idea of our Faronda?"
Bruce laughed. "I begin to understand," said he. "But—surely— they will see through it? They know where Faronda really is?"
"Do they? That's the point! Perhaps not. He is supposed to be on board a large warship very like this one, and he is somewhere about amongst the other craft in the shadows, while we are in full blaze of all their searchlights. Even if he were now in view, many of his people would be puzzled for the moment as to which is which. As it is, probably it won't occur to them to question the matter at all till too late. We are in hopes that they will obey the orders we are signalling and make way for us. Ah! See! That is just what they are doing!"
And so it was. One by one the crowd of airships in front of them sheered off to right and to left, allowing them a clear path, which Milona promptly took advantage of.
The embarrassing searchlights were turned away in other directions, and as the "Amando" and her consorts slipped forward, their lights were suddenly extinguished, and they vanished into the darkness ahead.
It was not until they had gone far enough to get some distance beyond the last of the hostile fleet that their enemies discovered the ruse which had been played upon them.
"Look!" cried Milona, laughing heartily. "Do you see those signals over there? That, I suspect, is Faronda's ship, and he is frantically signalling all round, giving his various officers his opinion of them, and telling them how they have been fooled! He'll order a pursuit at any cost; of that you may be sure. He'll be too furious at the trick we have played him to allow us to pass without making an attempt to catch us. So we must put on all speed ahead."
Sure enough, they saw several of the airships they had passed turn again and hasten after them, evidently in pursuit.
"Come on, friends, come on!" cried Milona mockingly. "We've got a good start, and now it is a case of catch us if you can!"
An exciting chase followed. The "Amando" and her smaller consorts put on the utmost speed their machinery was capable of, and their angry pursuers did the same.
Soon there was a long, straggling string of airships astern, some large and some small, racing with one another in desperate efforts to catch up the flying four before they could get away to safety. Some of the pursuers were swifter than others, and these began gradually to draw nearer.
But the fugitives could now distinguish a number of lights in the distance which they knew must be King Amando's airships. Why they had been so far behind Faronda's retreating force was a puzzle they could not just then understand. It was sufficient, however, for the moment, that at last their friends were in sight and were coming rapidly towards them. Their advent was very welcome, for some of Faronda's vessels had been getting unpleasantly close.
Now the latter began to fall back as they saw Amando's forces coming on, and eventually they gave up the chase. Then Milona and his followers threw off their disguises and resumed their own attire, ere hastening onwards to meet their friends.
The dawn was breaking as the vessels met, and the returning victors received hearty greetings as they passed along the line of friendly craft. The first to meet them were some of Milona's own scouts; then came some heavier warships, and great was their surprise as they perceived that their young prince had not only returned in safety, but that the little vessel he had set out in had captured and brought back their own big warship, the "Amando," besides smaller prizes.
Signals were exchanged, one of the craft drew alongside, and the officer in command went aboard.
From him they learned that there had been no regular battle and very little serious fighting. Faronda's wonderful cloud had not done all that he had hoped for. He had been foiled in his attempt to surprise his foes, and he had failed also to "navigate" his artificial vapour in such manner as to envelop the "Ramaylia," which was what he had aimed at. Finding that his plans had miscarried, he had discreetly drawn off in the darkness after a few scattered conflicts.
But the cloud had drifted away in another direction, and King Amando had set off after it with the greater part of his force to search for Milona in its inky depths. In his anxiety as to the fate of the "Wasp" and those on board her, he had been content to allow Faronda's main fleet to retreat practically unmolested.
The sun was rising as Milona's party drew near the palace, and met the king returning from his unsuccessful search. A little later they all landed at the place from which they had set out the previous evening; and the story of the night's doings was then told, and passed rapidly from lip to lip. Milona dwelt with much enthusiasm upon the doughty deeds performed by the chums and their faithful retainer; and when the tired warriors wended their way back into the palace, amid the cheers and huzzas of the people assembled to welcome them, there were none who were more heartily greeted than the three visitors from "the evening star."
SUCH was the first night spent by our travellers upon the planet Mars. Truly it had been a night of adventures and surprises. By the time they reached the palace they were, as may be supposed, pretty well tired out, and were glad to snatch a few hours' sleep.
In the evening the interrupted banquet of the previous night was resumed—or, rather, another was held in its place. At this the visitors from our Earth found themselves, with Prince Milona, the heroes of the hour.
King Amando was particularly pleased at the recapture of the big airship named after himself; and he made a speech in which he spoke of all those concerned in the feat in highly eulogistic terms. The assembled guests were enthusiastic, and cheered them till the two chums fairly blushed with embarrassment, and almost wished they could suddenly become invisible as a means of escaping the attention they were attracting.
Not so Micky. At another table he was the chief figure among a number of the under officers, who were treating him with the utmost deference, and he was drinking his fill of the cup of compliments and praise. He accepted it all as his due, and carried himself with so lordly an air, that those around him were conscious of a sort of reflected honour and glory in being condescendingly allowed to sit at the same table with so gifted a being.
After the banquet was over there were entertainments, dances, and revels, in the beautiful gardens surrounding the royal palace. Here, amidst illuminated terraces, groves of scented trees, and the soft music of plashing fountains, the two chums, strolling about in the company of the prince and his friends, came upon Mike. He was posing in the centre of an admiring crowd, to whom he was holding forth in fine style, fighting his battles over again, and accepting their applause with quite the air, as Bruce put it, of a "grand seigneur."
"Look at him!" said Bruce quizzically. "Is he not 'to the manner born'? Whatever shall we do with him after this? It will be a case of swelled head, I fear!"
Milona was highly amused.
"He's delightful!" he declared. "It's a treat to look at him. I wouldn't have missed it on any account."
"You made him play the king for half an hour, prince," laughed Maurice, "and I'm thinking he won't come down to our level again just yet."
"I don't blame him. He's thinking that he'll never have a chance to play such a part again, so he is determined to make the most of it. However, there is something else to amuse you coming on now—the illuminated aerial manoeuvres which our worthy folk had planned to welcome us home. They ought to have come off last night, only, as you know, we had real war manoeuvres instead."
"I suppose there is no fear of Faronda coming back suddenly and upsetting your programme again, as he did last night?" asked Maurice.
"Oh, no! We have seen to that," Milona assured him. "We have scouts out in all directions, and the latest news is that he has gone off to his own country and given up the game—for the time being, at any rate. His cleverly planned surprise failed, and he knows that now my royal father is back we are too strong for him, even though the 'Ramaylia' is still lying useless. They haven't repaired her injuries yet, I hear."
"Those Johnnies must have done a good deal of damage in the little time they had to themselves," Bruce commented. "I suppose they knew exactly how to go to work to do the most mischief in the shortest time."
"That's just how it was. Some of the instruments and auxiliary machines are most intricate, delicately adjusted affairs, easily thrown out of gear, and very difficult to repair."
"The treacherous, mischievous beasts!" muttered Maurice between his teeth. "I wish I had the handling of them! I would give them something to remember it by!"
"It's no use worrying," said Milona, summing it all up in his usual cheerful fashion. "They failed in their grand scheme and have gone back pretty badly depressed. Incidentally they provided us with plenty of fun—with some capital adventures—and they made for us, so to speak, the opportunity of distinguishing ourselves—and—"
"And gave Micky the opportunity of playing at being a king for half an hour," Maurice put in.
"Precisely, my friend. What more would you wish for? Now keep your eyes aloft, and you will see some curious sights."
It was a fine night, with a very slight breeze, but somewhat cloudy; and now a cloud lying high, almost overhead, was seen to he faintly luminous. Gradually the light increased, until the whole cloud looked like a mass of fiery red vapour.
Another cloud, some distance away, also began to glow with a dim radiance, which developed into a vivid deep purple. Then other clouds became luminous, some pink, some green, some golden, and one with a wonderful silvery sheen. This last grew and grew in intensity until it became so dazzling that the eye could scarce bear to rest upon it, and the whole landscape, and the sea beyond, were lighted up almost as by daylight. Finally it died down until it was only a soft silvery sheen, at which it remained.
Then, from out some of these clouds, there issued what looked like fiery dragons and other "fearsome" creatures—each glowing throughout with the colour of the cloud from which it had emerged. The chums guessed that these were airships disguised in some way in imitation of the monsters represented, and illuminated with electric light; but they were greatly impressed, nevertheless, by the appearance they presented.
"What are they copied from?" asked Maurice wonderingly. "Have you creatures like them on this planet—or have you imagined them? They put me in mind of the awful monstrosities which they say existed once upon a time on our Earth, and which we know under the general name of antediluvian animals."
The question was not answered, for just then Milona directed their attention to some figures which issued from the silver cloud. They were a troupe of flyers, and the prince explained that they were supposed to be hunters going to hunt down the flying monsters.
They all carried lights on their heads, and what looked like flaming swords. Some amongst them were mounted on the semblance of other flying creatures of smaller size—just as with us men go out hunting mounted on horses, or elephants, or other animals.
There followed some vivid combats between these "hunters" and their terrible-looking quarry. The fighting was extraordinarily well carried out, the hunters attacking the object of their pursuit on all sides, now above, now below. Sometimes a monster would lash out with its great tail, and send half a dozen of its assailants flying downwards, together, at other times a cavernous mouth would open and seize at one big gulp two or three of its tormentors, who straightway disappeared from sight as though swallowed.
Other hunters came forth from the silver cloud to join in the fray, until the sky appeared to be crowded with quite an army of them, intermingling and careening in and out in bewildering fashion. The scenes ended in the supposed deaths of the monsters, which fell to the ground. Then Milona led his friends to the place where they had descended, that they might see for themselves what these terrible-looking creations were like when viewed closely. It could then be seen that they were merely lath and canvas frameworks, fitted on to small airships—not, indeed, unlike huge Chinese lanterns.
After this there followed aerial races of many kinds. There were competitions for aerial "yachts" and "skiffs," aeroplanes or motor kites, flyers with motor wings, and others with simple wings. The various races were contested with great keenness, and excited immense interest and enthusiasm among the spectators, especially on the part of the two chums.
The rival manoeuvres of three or four of the aerial yachts roused their unbounded admiration. The exploits of one in particular they followed with intense curiosity and astonishment, almost holding their breath as they watched the way in which it made sudden, daring, giddy dives or upward rushes in order to pass beneath or over its opponents. At last they pointed out this particular craft to Milona, and asked its name and to whom it belonged. He laughed genially.
"Why, that is my own racing yacht! She is named the 'Shooting Star,'" he replied. "Yes; as you say, she is doing well to- night. My worthy lieutenant Oleron is in charge of her."
"She is well named. How I should like to be on board!" sighed Maurice. "What fun it must be! Jupiter! What racing have we on our Earth to compare with this!"
"You are longing to be on board?" exclaimed Milona. "Why, that is easy enough! I should have taken charge of her myself to-night, but decided not to do so, partly because I did not like to leave you, seeing that you are my guests, and partly because I thought perhaps Oleron would manage better just now without me. It is a fine sport, this aerial yacht racing, but it requires a sharp eye and constant practice to keep one in training; and, you see, I am a hit rusty from having been so long away."
"She seems to be beating all the others," said Bruce. "Could we go on board, do you think? Should we be too many?"
"Not at all. We'll turn some of the crew out to make room for us," said Milona in his impetuous way.
It happened that shortly after this there was an interval in the racing, and the young prince had a message conveyed to the officer in charge of the yacht, which quickly brought the craft to the ground beside them. They climbed on board, and she rose at once in the air with what felt like a delightful, swinging leap.
"You'd better put these on," said Milona, indicating some parachute attachments, as he proceeded to invest himself with one. "If you glance round, you will see that everybody wears them. We regard them as necessary precautions, for an accident may happen at any moment. One never knows."
"Just as one dresses himself in oilskins on board a racing yacht in a rough sea, I suppose?" Maurice remarked.
"Or, rather," put in Bruce, with a short laugh, "as lifeboat-men rig themselves out with cork swimming jackets."
The course to be sailed was marked out by stationary airships, carrying great lights, so brilliant that, as in the case of the luminous cloud, the whole sky above and the landscape below were lighted up. Even the light of the two moons, which at times peeped between the clouds, seemed dim by comparison.
As to the aerial races in which the chums now took part, their experiences were exciting indeed. Prince Milona proved to be not only quite as skilful as any of his rivals, but he was perhaps the most daring of them all. He took risks and executed dives which his officer Oleron would not have attempted. To say that he brought his friends' "hearts into their mouths" would be a mild way of describing things. As Maurice put it, one moment they seemed to be on a switchback—on a very different scale, however, to anything he had ever been in before—the next they seemed to be "looping the loop "—or several "loops" all at once.
Their energetic, adventurous young "skipper" won more than one race by fairly startling his competitors and making them lose their nerve. Later on, after the races were over, he proceeded to give some examples of the ease and certainty with which he could manoeuvre his craft. From a point high in air, over the sea, he would make a terrific, headlong dive of a thousand or two thousand feet, fetching up just in time to glide along the water, almost skimming the surface, as gracefully and easily as a swallow. The occupants of the other airships above, and the crowds below, paused and watched his evolutions with breathless interest and amazement, breaking out now and again into roars of applause at some fresh and unexpected feat.
As for his two guests, it would be impossible to describe the effect the performance exercised upon them. If they did not say much at the time, it was because they had not much opportunity for speech. They were most of the time gasping for breath, or holding wildly on to the taffrail and the seats upon which they were sitting.
Their emotions and ideas may be summed up in Maurice's remark to his chum that night, just before turning in:
"Bruce," said he, "I shall know no peace till I have learned to manage a racing air yacht, and to manoeuvre it like Milona does. And, if we stay here long enough, I mean to do it, too!"
To which Bruce murmured an unhesitating, though somewhat sleepy, approval.
THE burning wish expressed by Maurice with regard to aerial yachts was destined to be fulfilled in a manner he little expected.
One morning, a few days after the events recorded in the last chapter, Milona brought some startling news. He arrived almost before the chums had finished dressing, saying that he had been sent with a present from the king.
The "present" turned out to be neither more nor less than a superb, brand-new, aerial racing yacht, sent by Amando "as an acknowledgment of the assistance they had given in the recapture of his warship."
"She has only just been completed, and the king bought her before she was off the stocks," Milona declared. "She was built to outstrip my 'Shooting Star,' and I shouldn't be surprised if she succeeds. She looks a regular flyer! We named her the 'Evening Star,' after your own planet."
The chums ran out to look at this splendid gift, which was lying outside; and there they found her, a beautiful craft indeed, lying glistening in the morning sun in all the glory of new paint, polished woodwork, and mountings of solid silver and gold.
This was the beginning of an exciting and enjoyable time for the visitors from Earth. Every day the prince went out with them, either in their new acquisition or his own yacht, giving them lessons in aerial racing—which they found to be, of all forms of racing, the most fascinating and exhilarating. The "Evening Star" turned out to be "a clipper"; and under the able tuition of their generous young host they speedily learned to handle her with praiseworthy cleverness. They made such progress that it certainly seemed as if in time they might achieve what they laughingly talked of—the feat of beating their tutor in his own racer. But that lay in the future.
In the course of their practice lessons they made short cruises in the prince's company, visiting all the "places of interest," as the guide-books, say, which lay within a moderate distance. They could not as yet go very far afield on account of the unsettled state of affairs in regard to Faronda.
That worthy had made no further move, and the situation had taken the form of a kind of informal truce. What surprised people most was the fact that the weeks went by and the "Ramaylia" was still lying where she had landed. It was rumoured that some important part of her machinery was missing, and could not be replaced. Whatever might be the true explanation, King Amando kept it to himself; and only one thing was known with any certainty—viz. that the great aerostat was disabled.
Until he should be able to make use of her Amando preferred to let matters drift, as it were. He was satisfied if, for the time, Faronda made no further attack.
Faronda meanwhile, on his part, seemed equally content to allow matters to remain as they were. As Lukron had expressed it, he was now actual king over the country he had formerly ruled, and from which he had been exiled; and he left it to Amando to take the next step and oust him if he could.
The result was, as has been said, a sort of informal peace for the time being. But it is certain that Amando did not trust his enemy, and probably he suspected him of being engaged in hatching some further mischief, to be launched unexpectedly when the time for it should be ripe. In particular, he feared some plot to kidnap and carry off his son, Prince Milona, an action which, if successful, would place Faronda in a position to make almost his own terms.
Thus the chums found their liberty of action greatly restricted and their "touring" confined within certain limits, within which there was no hunting of wild animals to be had, or any adventures to be met with, such as their high spirit still yearned for.
Meantime they made the most of their time in those directions which were open to them. They became experts in aerial racing and in the management of their yacht, and learned also, up to a certain point, the puzzling mysteries of flying with artificial wings, But this was an art in which, as they soon found, they could not advance beyond a certain point; and they were compelled reluctantly to admit to themselves that they would never be able to fly as easily and gracefully as the Martians.
"It's born with them—that's where it is," Bruce declared. "It comes down to them through generations."
In other directions, too, it is needless to say, there was plenty to be seen, plenty to amuse them, and plenty to wonder at. It would take too long to describe here all the marvels and novelties—as they appeared to them—which they encountered in the daily life of the people. There were few ships or marine craft, for travelling by water was considered too slow. Railways existed—upon a different plan to ours—but they also were considered too slow for passengers, and were used almost solely for heavy goods traffic. Everybody travelled through the air as a matter of course, even for short distances; and if it had not been that their artificial wings were worked with their legs as well as with their arms, the result would have been that the Martians would probably have ceased by this time to have any legs at all.
The city of Nitalda, and many other towns, were most curiously built, the houses being placed usually on the summits of rocky pinnacles. Where these did not occur naturally, or could not be cut out of existing rock, they were built up artificially of stone-work, or even of wood. Thus they had much the appearance, as the visitors had expressed it at first sight, of a collection of large dovecotes. Sometimes, neighbouring dwellings were connected by light bridges thrown from one to the other, and the appearance of these structures, as seen from the air above, stretching across from the top of one pinnacle to another, and sometimes connecting numbers together into triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, was very quaint.
One morning—nearly three months after their arrival on the planet—Prince Milona appeared in his guests' room before they had begun to dress. Now, an early visit from him nearly always portended that he was the bearer of some special piece of news. Hence, even before he spoke, the two chums were arguing in their own minds that this particularly early appearance must foreshadow some very unexpected tidings.
In this they were not mistaken.
"Such news, my friends!" cried the prince, beginning in his usual bustling manner, almost as though his news were blowing off, like steam from a boiler, at high pressure. "Such news! I'm going on an expedition to Baralaland—and you're to come, too."
"And where may Baralaland be?" asked Bruce.
"It is a rather out-of-the-way country, where there are things to hunt, and lots to see that will amuse you two. But we are to keep it dark. The king does not wish it to be known that I am going. Some one, however, must go to seek for something that he particularly wants, and he cannot go to search for it himself. He dares not leave the city for fear Faronda might pay it a visit again. So he is sending Kumelda, and I am to accompany him; and I have obtained leave to take you too."
There followed much talk, and for some time questions and answers were flying to and fro from mouth to mouth; after which they began to prepare for the journey.
As the matter was to be kept secret, these preparations were made privately, with very little fuss; and that same night—in the dark—the travellers started.
King Amando and two or three of his most confidential councillors alone witnessed their departure.
The expedition consisted of an aerial warship of medium size— such as we should term a frigate or cruiser—named the "Krastah," with two tenders or despatch vessels. The friends also took their racing yachts, which were stowed away on the warship like pinnaces. The whole outfit was under the command of Kumelda, Amando's chief general, with Oleron as second in command. Milona had also obtained permission to take his friends Tralona and Myontis, and the engineer Lukron. The latter, with his subordinates, had not only received the King's pardon, but had been well rewarded, and had now once more regularly entered his service.
In their storage batteries they took extra supplies of electricity, for in the country they were going to there were no storage stations as there were in the more thickly populated districts. It is true they carried machinery for furnishing a further supply in case of emergency, but it was not always convenient to rely upon that.
They travelled through the night, and all the next day, flying, however, very high, so that but little was seen of the country they passed over. At first they saw many airships travelling to and fro, some of which were "liners," carrying passengers like our ocean steamers; some were warships or scouts cruising around, while others were private yachts of all sizes. Many of them recognised the "Krastah" passing high overhead, and saluted her; but as she flew no "royal standard" they were unaware that she carried Prince Milona.
Towards afternoon they descended to a lower level, and the chums were then able to see the country—and a very bare, desolate territory it was that they had come to. There were no longer airships to be seen above, nor any trace of towns or villages below. It was a mere stretch of waterless desert, seemingly quite uninhabited.
As the sun was near to setting, they saw its rays reflected from water in the distance, and soon after they arrived upon the shores of a lonely-looking lake, which had for background a range of great mountains, whose lofty peaks towered up into the clouds. Upon the shore of this piece of water was a large stone building, bearing somewhat the appearance of an ancient deserted castle; and here the travellers came to a halt.
"The lake is salt water," Milona informed his friends. "This old castle was formerly used as a hunting seat when parties came this way in search of sport. Nowadays it is quite deserted."
"And what is there to hunt?" Bruce asked.
Milona gazed across the water.
"The lake," he replied, "is reputed to be unfathomable; some believe it to be connected in some way with the sea. In its depths there are to be found very strange creatures, which you can sometimes catch, provided," he added with a dry smile, "they don't catch you. And among those mountains are more strange creatures; in particular, big flying things, very savage and ferocious, which would as soon make a meal upon you or me as upon anything else. So one has to be on one's guard here, for they have been known to swoop suddenly down on a man and carry him off as easily as a hawk seizes upon a mouse!"
As it was understood that this ancient castle was to be their headquarters for some days, a portion of their stores and camping outfit was landed and set out within its walls. Hammocks were swung in the side chambers, and the friends took up their quarters there, as being more roomy than those they occupied in the airship.
Some time in the middle of the night Maurice woke up, and after tossing about for a while finally slipped out of his hammock. They had all turned in in their clothes, as they would when camping out; and he went to the window and looked through it. As he glanced across the lake at the mountains, he thought he could distinguish two or three small lights moving about. This excited his curiosity, and, determined to investigate as far as possible, he silently made his way out into the main hall, and thence up some stairs to a turret at the top, to which Milona had taken him the previous evening to see the view.
On this turret he now stood gazing at the rugged precipices and rocky peaks opposite. Heavy clouds were drifting across the moon, casting dark shadows below over mountains and lakes.
Maurice thought he had never seen a more gloomy, forbidding tract than that which now lay before him; and for the first time he began to wonder why they had come there. The object in view must be a pressing one, or King Amando would have postponed it until after he had settled matters with Faronda. Maurice had a vague idea that it must have something to do with the great airship, the "Ramaylia." Something was wanted, perhaps, to complete the repairs and render her serviceable again.
"Yes!" Maurice decided in his own mind; "it must be something of that kind. But why should such secrecy be necessary? And what was there to be found in this dismal, desolate waste to make it necessary thus to send a special secret expedition to search for it? It was all very mysterious—"
Thus far had Maurice's thoughts travelled, when he was startled by hearing a sudden rushing sound as of some monster close at hand cleaving the air with mighty wings.
He glanced up in the direction of the sound just in time to catch sight of a huge, dark shape which seemed to launch itself out of the deep shadow of a cloud overhead. Ere he could move a hand to defend himself, or even cry out, it had swooped upon him, had seized him with its great claws, and was carrying him off over the lake to the sombre, frowning mountains beyond!
AS Maurice was seized and carried up into the air he uttered involuntarily a cry for help—a call which penetrated to the chamber of the ancient castle in which his friends were sleeping. One of the sleepers—it was Prince Milona—heard it, and awoke with a start. He raised his head and stared about, disturbed by a vague sense of something being wrong.
The moonlight came in at the window and fell across the hammock in which he knew Maurice had been lying; and it could be seen that it was empty.
At the same moment another cry—a wail as of someone in terrible distress—came floating through the midnight calm, and Milona hesitated no longer, but sprang out of his hammock, and going over to where Bruce was sleeping, awoke him.
"Get up quickly! Something is wrong!" he said in low tones. "Your friend is missing! I thought I heard a call for help as I woke up, and now I have certainly heard it again. Follow me up the steps to the turret!"
He hurried off as he spoke, and Bruce, scarce pausing to look wonderingly at the empty hammock, followed close upon his heels.
When they reached the turret the moon was shining through a rift in the clouds, and at their very first glance out over the lake they saw a huge flying creature winging its way towards the distant mountains. A second glance showed that it was carrying something in its talons; and then there was heard again a cry for help; this time faint and half-stifled.
"It is a quondo—one of the giant bats!" exclaimed Milona, aghast at what he saw. "And I do believe it must be Maurice it is carrying away!"
Bruce uttered a cry of horror and despair. "What—what's to be done?" he asked wildly. "Are we to stay here and look idly on? Ah! what's that?"
From far up in the sky, where it had been hidden in the shadow of a cloud, as though stationed there on the watch, a small airship was seen to dart downwards. It looked, so far as could be seen in the uncertain light, like a racing yacht, painted of a curious red hue. That it was an air-craft of great speed was quickly made certain by the terrific rate at which it dived down in the direction of the great bat. The latter at the time was flying low, not more than fifteen feet above the surface of the water, as though it found its burden as much as it could manage. The airship passed close to the creature, which dropped its prey into the water below, and then, as though badly wounded, gave a long scream of rage and pain, and fell into the lake.
Maurice, though dazed from the shock and the terrible danger in which he had been placed, managed to strike out when he plunged into the water, and keep himself afloat. Meantime the airship had swept round and returned in a wide circle, and was now hovering over him. From it a rope was flung out with a loop at the end, which fell near the struggling swimmer. He managed to get his head and arms through this, and a moment later was drawn up into the airship, which then, to the surprise of the spectators, immediately shot up into the clouds and disappeared from sight.
Milona and Bruce had watched the whole scene in agonised suspense, and had given a simultaneous gasp of relief when they had seen their friend at last drawn up into what they imagined to be safety. Up to that point it had never occurred to either of them to wonder what airship it was, how it came to be there, or whether the people in her were friends or enemies. But now, when she coolly sailed off out of sight, without so much as a parting signal by way of explanation, these questions came rushing into their minds all at once, and they looked at one another in blank astonishment.
"Wh—what airship is that?" cried Bruce, pouring out, in excited haste, a whole string of questions. "Who is on board? Why have they sailed off with Maurice? Where are they taking him to?"
"I have no more idea than you," Milona declared, in a bewildered way. "It's all a mystery to me! I do not know the craft! So far as I could tell in the bad light, I have never seen her before. I had no idea there was such a craft anywhere about here!"
Just then they heard a hail. The whole scene had been witnessed from the "Krastah," which lay resting on the ground near at hand, by the watch, who had called his officers. Oleron had immediately ordered the prince's air yacht to be brought round, and had gone on board himself.
She had been got out the previous evening, and was lying beside the warship ready for use when wanted; and the lieutenant had promptly decided that she would be the best vessel in which to follow up the strange airship, which was evidently "a flyer."
As the "Shooting Star" rose in the air Oleron saw the two standing on the turret, and called out that he proposed to go in chase of the stranger, asking if the prince desired to accompany him. Milona signified his acquiescence, the craft was brought alongside the turret, Milona and Bruce sprang on board, and the next moment, with a great upward heave, the yacht started off in the direction which the strange airship had taken.
Naturally Bruce was in a state of great mystification and no little alarm. It had been a time of trying suspense while his chum had been in the grip of the great bat, but now that that immediate danger had passed, he was no less anxious as to what had become of him. Surely (he argued) the people who had rescued him could hardly be friends, or they would have brought him back to the old castle. And if not friends, then they were foes—but what sort of foes, and why should they wish to carry him off? If they were people who wished him harm, why had they saved him from a terrible death—as they undoubtedly had done?
Bruce felt that in a strange world, as he of course was, many things were possible which he could not even guess. The most serious part of the present mystery, perhaps, lay in the fact that Milona and his people were just as much in the dark as himself. His chum had been carried off, and they could not guess any more than he could as to who had taken him or whither he had gone.
These thoughts passed through his mind as the "Shooting Star" darted upwards at its utmost speed. Looking round he found that Lukron, the engineer, was one of Oleron's company, and at the same moment his eyes fell upon Mike. He had happened to be at hand when Oleron had started, and had begged to be allowed to go too.
Bruce had become friendly with Lukron during the time that had elapsed since their first meeting on the eventful night of the capture of the warship "Amando." He turned to him now:
"You know something, Lukron, of the king's enemy, Faronda," he said. "Do you imagine that it is his people who have carried off my friend? Do you think this strange red craft looked like one of his airships?"
But Lukron only shook his head. Evidently the occurrence was as much a puzzle to him as to the prince.
They shot up into the clouds, passed through them, and ascended into realms high above, looking down on them as upon a billowy sea of masses of cotton wool. But no trace could they see of the stranger. She had vanished as completely as though she had melted into air.
Airships leave no tracks as do wheeled vehicles upon the ground. There was absolutely nothing therefore to guide them as to which way the craft had gone; nothing to give a clue as to the direction in which they should seek for her.
Some discussion ensued as to the course which the mysterious red craft had really been seen to take. Milona and Bruce were both of opinion that it had finally disappeared into the clouds. But at the moment of this disappearance their attention had been distracted by the hail from Oleron. Mike and Lukron, who had also watched it, now stated their belief that after it had passed into the cloud they had seen it descend again farther away, where it seemed to be lost in the shadows of the mountains. Lukron, in particular, declared that he did not think it had gone away altogether, but was hiding away somewhere in one of the deep mountain gorges.
"If that is the case, we had better go down and make a search below," Milona decided.
They descended accordingly through the banks of cloud, and cruised slowly about over the desolate tract below. They turned the airship's searchlight into the sombre gorges and valleys, where the shadows thrown by the clouds were black as ink, and peered carefully into them; and whenever they saw a shaft of moonlight pierce through a rift and light up one of these gorges, they would hurry thither in the hope that the rays might reveal the object of their search hiding in it; but no success rewarded these efforts.
Bruce gazed curiously down upon the wild, uninviting stretch of country which he could see spread out beneath them. Rugged, rocky mountains were piled up, tier upon tier, towering high in the air, showing no signs of inhabitants, and few signs even of vegetation or water. It was a bleak, mountainous desert, and extended from the shores of the lake as far as they could see from their lofty outlook.
One thing which Bruce particularly noticed was that many of the mountains were hollow, as if they were the craters of extinct volcanoes—as, indeed, they probably were. And presently he caught sight of one in the distance which he thought showed a distinct glow, as though there were fire or some kind of light within. He pointed this out to Oleron, who at once steered the yacht in that direction, and hovered over it at a height of two or three hundred feet.
They looked down into the crater-like hollow, and were able to make out some occasional flashes, as of a flickering flame. At the same time a very unmistakable odour as of noxious gases made itself felt, and increased so quickly that they had to shoot suddenly upwards to avoid being suffocated.
Even as it was they had remained too long within reach of the deadly gas, and Bruce gasped for breath ere he could speak.
"A volcano!" he jerked out. "We were right over a volcano! Another minute or two and we should have become unconscious! I should, at any rate!"
"But," said Milona, evidently greatly perplexed, "there is no active volcano hereabouts! No doubt the whole region was volcanic once upon a time—so our scientific men say—but that was hundreds—thousands—of years ago."
"What, then, can be the meaning of the glow we saw inside the crater, and those suffocating fumes?" Bruce asked.
Neither Milona nor Oleron could answer this question to their own satisfaction; and Mike's suggestion that "somebhoddy moight 'av left the gas tap turned on," was not received with much favour.
As the moon fell lower their search became more difficult and more hopeless. And as the moonlight failed, some monstrous flying shapes, which had before only been caught sight of hawking in the distant shadows, grew bolder, and came circling round the airship.
These could now be seen for what they really were—just bats of enormous size, possessing all the grotesqueness that usually belongs to the family, with an extra touch of uncanny grisliness, so to speak, thrown in. They came now sallying out of the deeper shadows with fearful, blood-curdling screams, rushing round the travellers, and evincing a disposition to "mob them." It was noticeable, too, that they had the usual fetid, disgusting smell which all bats have more or less; but in their case it was so highly developed that Bruce was fain to confess to a feeling of sickness.
"How is it," he asked, "that these frightful monsters exist here still? I should have thought you would have exterminated such things long ago."
"This desert is a sort of no man's land," Milona explained. "A wild, uninhabited waste which is seldom visited. Among the mountains there are endless caves in which these creatures have their homes. They are extremely bold and daring sometimes at night; while by day there are the krondos—a race of giant eagles—just as ready to attack passing travellers. So that it is not to be wondered at that the whole territory is avoided by all but an occasional prospector who may come here searching for certain rare metals. For the region is known, as I have already said, to have once been volcanic; and among the rocks and caverns one can sometimes find, if one is lucky, rare and precious metals which do not exist anywhere else on our planet."
Bruce opened his eyes. "I see! That, I suppose, then, is really the object of your journey here?"
Milona nodded sagely. "You have hit upon it—or rather I have let it out. The fact is it is a bit of a secret not known to everybody; and we wish to keep it as quiet as we can. But, now, what are we to do? I fear further search here in the dark is but a hopeless business. I think we had better return to the castle and come again by daylight with a larger party and more airships. What do you think?"
There seemed nothing else to be done. The numbers of bats seemed to be increasing. The travellers had fought off many of them with their rambas or forked wands, and those struck had fallen hurtling through the air on to the rocks below, where they had been dashed to pieces. But more came out of the inky shadows to take their places.
The order was accordingly given to return to the old castle, and the airship was heading swiftly in that direction when, in traversing a long valley shut in on both sides by extensive ridges of high rocks, they passed a gap which gave a passing glimpse into a gorge running almost parallel upon the other side of one of the ridges. Lukron, who was still in charge of the searchlight, turned its rays through the gap, where they fell upon something red travelling rapidly along the next valley.
It passed so swiftly that those who caught sight of it had scarce time to make out its shape ere it had vanished past the gap.
"The red airship!" cried Milona. "I saw her! Turn back, and after her at full speed!"
BRUCE had also caught a fleeting view of the stranger, and the sight of her roused him from the gloomy depression into which the failure of their search had cast him.
The thought that Maurice was on board her, and that she was now but a little way off, was tantalising indeed.
"She's been hiding somewhere near here after all!" he exclaimed wrathfully. "No doubt the people in her have been watching us, and laughing at our effort to find them! And now when they thought we had gone, they were stealing off through the darkness!"
"It must be so!" muttered Milona. "Though how or where they managed to hide so cunningly beats me altogether!"
In little more than a few seconds the "Shooting Star" had swung round, darted through the gap, and was sweeping along at a tremendous rate in the wake of the stranger, whose red hull was dimly revealed in the distance by the rays of the searchlight.
But she had had a good start, and was a long way ahead; and though the pursuers thought they were gaining a little, they were certainly not overhauling her very fast.
For a while she kept a straight course, but at length it appeared that those on board, finding they could not shake off their pursuers, resolved to try other tactics. They turned off sharply round the shoulder of a high rock, and started up a valley running at right angles, then turned again in similar fashion to the left, then again to the right, and kept darting about in and out through gaps, and up and down valleys and gorges, until at last they suddenly disappeared altogether.
Vainly did the "Shooting Star" cruise up and down the gorge in which this second disappearance had taken place. No trace could they find of the strange airship; no clue to the remarkable manner in which she had vanished.
Only one thing did they discover, viz. that they were in the valley in which was the low mountain or old crater from which the suffocating gases had issued. This was made obvious to them after they had been going to and fro a short time, though they did not notice it at first.
Here were some facts which Milona found very puzzling.
"There are one or two very strange things about this," he commented. "Earlier in the night we came into this valley and passed over and through it, noticing at first nothing unusual. Then we saw lights in an old crater, and were driven away from a closer inspection by suffocating gases. That was a curious thing, suggesting, as you said, friend Bruce, that one of the ancient volcanoes might be getting active again. We go away for some time, and then, in course of chasing the strange airship, we return here and lose her somewhere hereabouts. This time, again, we at first noticed nothing of those noxious fumes which drove us away before; yet now they are becoming very strong again. What does all this mean?"
But no one could answer the puzzle, and all they could do was to continue to cruise up and down as near to the place where they had last seen the red airship as the noxious vapours would allow.
Presently the dawn appeared, and with it came Kumelda, the official leader of the expedition, with the "Pilot" and "Satellite," the two small airships which acted as tenders and despatch vessels. He had come out to look for the "Shooting Star." After a conference he counselled the prince to go back to the old castle and take some rest, promising to mount guard meanwhile.
"When you have rested, Prince," said he, "come back, and we will make a more complete search with a larger party. I will promise you meanwhile that if any strange airship is hiding hereabout it shall not get away, whatever its colour, whether red, blue, or green."
This advice Milona and Bruce were, after some discussion, prevailed upon to follow. The "Shooting Star" returned accordingly to the place which they had made their headquarters. There the two threw themselves into their hammocks, and so tired out were they with the excitements and anxieties of the night that they quickly fell into a sleep, which, if troubled and uneasy, was better, under the circumstances, than no sleep at all.
After about three hours had passed thus Bruce woke up, and feeling too anxious about Maurice's fate to sleep any longer, began a few little preparations for the day's work. It had been arranged with Kumelda and Oleron that a party should be detailed to search some of the great caverns and underground galleries which existed in the valley near where the strange airship had vanished so mysteriously. One of Bruce's preparations now consisted in cleaning up his revolver, which, with a large supply of cartridges, he had brought with him; though thus far he had never used it since his arrival on Mars.
A little later Milona woke up, and seeing his companion thus busily engaged, asked what he was doing.
"Looking to my revolver," muttered Bruce through his teeth. "Somehow, Prince, I have a notion it may come in handy."
"Such things are considered so out of date with us that the only ones I know of are in the national museum at Nitalda," said Milona, with a smile.
"It's this way, Prince. If we can come across those fellows who have carried off Maurice there will be some fighting—especially if they've done him any harm," Bruce declared bluntly. "And— well—I am more at home with our old-world weapons than with those queer forked wands you call rambas. This is an old friend; and I would rather have it to depend on, if I'm likely to be in a tight corner," he continued, patting the barrel affectionately, "than your new-fangled weapons."
"Had Maurice his with him, do you suppose?" Milona asked, reflectively.
"I expect so. We looked 'em both out before we started on this jaunt—and Micky's got one, too."
"Well, as you talk of fighting, I only hope we may have the chance of it by finding the people who have captured our friend. At the same time I cannot think that Maurice will come to any personal harm," he went on. "Whoever these people may be who have carried him off in this mysterious fashion, we cannot forget that they first saved him from almost certain death. Why should they have done that if they had any evil intentions towards him?"
"But who can they be, and why were they hereabouts?" Bruce wanted to know. "Something tells me, from the quickness with which they appeared on the scene, that they were on the watch. Now what were they watching for? I do not know enough about this adventure we have come out upon to guess at a possible explanation. You alone know whether you expected to meet with enemies here who would be on the watch to do you injury—or"—here an idea flashed into Bruce's mind—"to capture you. If so—"
Milona started. "Friend Bruce," he said, "I think it possible that you have hit upon a clue! It is true that my father the king has had in his mind a fear of some plot to kidnap my precious self. Why, exactly, he is so apprehensive just now, he has not told me, I did not know whether it is merely a bit of extra solicitude on his part, or whether he has had any special information. But certainly he has shown more than usual anxiety; and that was the reason he was desirous that my presence with this expedition should not be publicly known. If our enemies have learned of my coming here, and have been watching for a chance to kidnap my poor person, then there is a possible explanation for what has occurred."
"But if they thought it was you being carried off, why should they try to rescue you?"
"Because I should be worth more to them alive than dead, don't you see," Milona answered simply.
"Well, supposing that is so, how will it affect my chum? When they find out their mistake—what will they do to him?"
"I think we may take it that they will try to make the same use of him as they would have done with me, only in a lesser degree. That is to say, they will demand certain conditions as their price for restoring him."
"And meantime, I suppose they will keep him alive, and not make away with him, unless negotiations fail?" muttered Bruce, gloomily. "It's cold comfort; but it is all we are likely to get! It offers a reason for hoping that his life is not in immediate danger?"
"Yes," Milona agreed with a sigh. "Friend Bruce, I cannot tell you how I wish it had been me, and not Maurice, they had captured! I would not have had this happen for—"
"Nay, it was no fault of yours, Prince," Bruce responded. "I sadly fear we must say it was due entirely to his own imprudence. He ought not to have got up in the night and gone out alone in a strange place.
"But there!" he added, "it is of no use to speculate upon what we don't know."
"How I wish we could communicate with my father!" said Milona, thoughtfully. "If we could only send a wireless message and ask his advice! As it is, all that can be done is to send an airship to carry the news and wait for its return."
Bruce gave a short laugh. "It is a funny thing," he commented, "that though on our planet we have only recently discovered wireless telegraphy, and you have known the secret for so long, we should be able to make use of it in a case like this while you cannot. You could send messages from our Earth to your planet and receive replies—a thing we cannot do—yet our ships at sea can send wireless messages to each other over distances two or three times as far as we are from Nitalda."
Now this was a curious fact, which Bruce had discovered very soon after arrival on Mars; and he had also learned that there was a very simple scientific reason for it. It may be explained by the circumstance that Mars being so much smaller than our Earth, the curve of its surface is necessarily sharper, restricting wireless communication upon that surface to shorter distances than is the case with us.
"Perhaps," mused Milona, "if we made an ascent to an extra height in the air we might possibly get a message through to Nitalda; but then, as no special arrangements were made to receive it, no one would be on the lookout for it, and it might be 'tapped' by somebody we do not wish to get it. Even our secret code would not make it safe. No! I am afraid the best and surest way will be to send an airship. It will take time, but we can be carrying on our search while it is away."
A COUPLE of hours later the friends found themselves the leaders of a strong party exploring a rocky labyrinth, which extended for miles beneath the rocks and mountains of the desolate region into which they had travelled.
Kumelda, who seemed to know something of the region, having visited it some years before with King Amando, had been as much puzzled as Milona at the presence of the volcano-like fumes which seemed to come and go in the valley in which the red airship had so strangely vanished. But all attempts to investigate closely were baffled by the deadly gases which now ascended steadily in the air to the height of many hundreds of feet.
"Perhaps," he had counselled, "we may solve the problem in another way—by exploring the caverns which have an outlet not far away. It may be that we shall get to the heart of the secret—if secret there be—more easily that way than by searching about above ground."
So the airships were left on guard outside, while a strong party entered the caverns, and after arranging certain precautions to prevent getting lost, separated into three smaller parties. One was under Kumelda himself, one under Oleron, and one under the young prince and Lukron—the latter having also been one of the king's party upon a former visit.
A very curious place the explorers found this labyrinth to be. There were great caverns connected together by high, spacious galleries, whether natural or artificial it was difficult to decide. Probably something of both. The adventurers were provided with electric lanterns of considerable power, which lighted up the interior fairly well, though many of the vaulted chambers were too lofty for even their rays to reach to the roof.
Streams of water were met with forming pools here and there, and in some cases the water was phosphorescent, and lighted up the gloomy surroundings with a weird, shimmering radiance. Here were seen many large, curious plants not to be found above ground, and strange, uncouth creatures, which dimly showed and then fled into the surrounding darkness. Amongst the latter were some of the great bats similar to the one which had been the cause of their present trouble. These at times evinced a disposition to attack the intruders, but they could not face the dazzling glare of the electric lamps; and from these they recoiled and vanished, with hoarse, ear-piercing screams, into the shadows.
At the end of some hours of patient and careful search according to the plan laid down by Kumelda, a halt was called for a necessary rest and a light meal. And there, in the gloomy depths of these rocky recesses, the searchers consumed such frugal fare as they had been able to bring with them.
Then, while the others rested, Bruce, too anxious and impatient to remain idle, wandered off alone. He was, however, seen by Milona and Mike, who followed him, and presently came upon him bending excitedly over some marks in the dust which covered the rocky floor of a side gallery.
"Look at these marks," he said in a low tone, as they joined him. "Does it not seem to you as though they had been made by several people quite recently? Look there at the side, where a little water is dripping from the roof! You can distinguish footmarks, and they appear to me to be quite fresh!"
"Certainly, you are right," exclaimed Milona. "Someone has been here—and not long since either! Let us follow them up!"
Without stopping to call upon the others to join them, the three went forward upon the tracks, following them as quickly as they could, through many winding galleries and chambers, till they had gone a considerable distance.
Then they came suddenly upon an unexpected scene.
The gallery they had been traversing ended abruptly upon the margin of a vast underground lake of phosphorescent water. There was a sandy margin, and in this were clearly seen marks as though caused by the prow of a boat and the feet of those who had clambered on board her.
Looking across and around the water of this strange, weird lake, there was light enough to see that the sides to both right and left were of rock, and so precipitous as to render it doubtful whether it would be possible to walk round it in either direction. The further side was invisible—a great, black shadow hung in front of it like a vast curtain.
"Done!" muttered Bruce, savagely, as he realised all this. "The people who were here had a boat, and have gone across the water in her; and without a craft of some kind it seems to me we cannot follow them! Now I wonder who they were?"
The others stared in astonishment at this unexpected development.
"Can it be that there are people living underground here?" said Milona. "That seems very unlikely so far as I know."
"Shure! I knowed a cave in ould Oirland, wheer a quare chap they called a hermit lived wance—" Mike began, when he was interrupted by a sharp cry from Bruce. He had been examining the marks in the sand by the aid of the lantern he was carrying.
"I verily believe this looks as if it might be Maurice's footprint!" he exclaimed. "Can't you see the shape of a boot different from the rest? He was wearing an old pair of his own this journey, because he said some others he had tried had made one of his feet sore; and he could not walk far in them. Now I know those old, stout boots of his well; and this mark looks as though it had been made by one of them. How I wish we had a boat! Then we could get across and follow them up—"
"Well, we have no boat, but we could fly across if we had our wings," Milona reminded him. "We can send and get them."
"Why, yes—of course! I quite forgot that way of getting across."
"But it will take some time, and, perhaps, after all, there may be a way of walking round which would be quicker," Milona pondered. "Let us see what we can make of it."
Bruce was now in a state of great excitement. Such a clue as he believed he had found roused him into impatience of all obstacles. He would have been ready to swim across this uncanny- looking piece of water if there had been no other way.
The three began their attempt to circumnavigate the lake, and floundered on for some time over very difficult ground, slipping on slimy ledges of rock, climbing over great boulders, and leaping across still pools or side channels. With much labour they had travelled about halfway round the margin, and were all, at the moment, busy looking down to pick out the best places to get firm footholds, when Mike happened to look up and gave a warning cry.
His companions glanced up, too, and were not a little surprised at what they saw.
From out the sombre shadow which hung over the further side of the lake, five strange shapes appeared flying towards them as if to attack them. At first sight Bruce thought these were more of the giant bats, and vaguely wondered at their coming out of the shadows in this bold way. But the longer he looked the more he felt puzzled about them. Though they certainly had the general appearance of gigantic bats, yet there were certain subtle differences which made him sharply alive to the thought that they were likely to prove much more formidable adversaries.
"Perhaps some different species," he said to himself. "Evidently more determined, and more ferocious, I expect—certainly different, for I can see that they are more stoutly built, and they fly in a heavy, clumsy fashion—"
His thoughts had run on thus far when Milona cried out in a low tone:
"Get your rambas ready! We may have trouble with these creatures, especially if they are going to attack us while we are floundering about among these slippery rocks!"
It became quickly evident that that was just what the new foes meant to do. They had apparently chosen the moment for their attack with a cunning that in the circumstances seemed surprising and almost uncanny.
In another moment these queer flying enemies were upon them. They uttered no piercing, bloodcurdling screams, but attacked in silence. They had great, hooked claws on their feet, and on the tips of their odd-looking wings; and these they made use of in the most extraordinary style.
Their method of attack was, Bruce thought, the most un-batlike, and yet at the same time the most "businesslike," he had ever seen. First they circled round in the air above, and then, when just over their intended victims, they suddenly dropped, falling upon them with their whole weight, trying to force their great talons into them and throw them down.
And then came a fresh surprise—the most unexpected thing of all. The explorers' electric weapons were of no use against these strange, monstrous creatures! To Milona this was a new and startling experience. As to Bruce, he quickly recognised the fact, and it only confirmed the half-doubts he had always felt with regard to the "rambas." As has been related before, he had, from the first, preferred, when he could, to trust even to his fists rather than to these (to him) novel and unfamiliar weapons.
That was when fighting with men. But here—well, he could see no reason why he should have any scruples; and without hesitation he drew his revolver.
Mike had already arrived at a similar conclusion by a shorter and less laboured process of reasoning. As things turned out it was as well he did so, for while he and Bruce were kept busy by the attentions of three of their assailants, the other two had made a dead set at the young prince, and were actually carrying him off between them.
Then came the sounds of firearms, which, in that great rocky chamber, might have been taken for the firing of cannon, for the reports reverberated again and again from side to side like broadsides from a battleship.
When the smoke cleared away, and Bruce and his faithful followers were able to look about them, their own assailants were lying beside them either dead or badly wounded; while the two which had seized Milona had dropped their prey into the water, and fled clumsily into the distant shadow.
Milona, who had fallen close to shore, scrambled out with the aid of his friends. Then they turned to look at their fallen foes.
As Bruce stooped over them he gave a cry and a start of astonishment. Then he hastily pulled off a mask from the head of the one nearest to him.
"Why," he exclaimed, in amaze, "this is no bat! It is a man got up to imitate one! No wonder I thought they had a queer, clumsy way of flying! They are not bats at all, but men!"
"So I quickly discovered when they seized upon me," said Milona, grimly. "Friend Bruce, you have done me a good turn, indeed! If it had not been for your weapons, which I had called 'old- fashioned,' they would have carried me off! But the report and the echoes seem to have so startled them that they relaxed their hold, and I was able to wriggle free from their clutches. In the struggle the mask of one nearly came off, and I saw his face, and recognised it. It was Yumonto, Faronda's chief officer!"
Ere Bruce could utter any comment upon this surprising statement there came another diversion. A number of Milona's people had traced them to the lake, and a group led by Lukron had made their way along its margin, and now came up to them. Lukron held a letter in his hand.
"I picked this up yonder," said he. "It had been put carefully on the bank, with a stone to keep it in its place—just as if some one had left it there hoping we might find it!"
It was addressed, on the outside, "To Prince Milona." Inside was written, in a strange handwriting:
If you would save your friend, watch at night for the red airship. If you cannot capture her, follow her.
Then there was one more line, which Bruce recognised at once as in Maurice's writing:
You may trust this. Tell Bruce. Maurice.
GREAT was the surprise with which Prince Milona and Bruce read the strange message written upon the missive Lukron had picked up.
"'If you would save your friend,'" Milona repeated, reading it over for the third or fourth time. "Who could have written this? And how came it where it was found?"
"I think it must be this way," cried Bruce, who was in a state of great excitement. "The people who captured Maurice and carried him off have been here—in these very caves—are somewhere in them now. They were the people whose tracks we were following, and who only escaped us because they had a boat here waiting in readiness to take them across this lake. Maurice must have been with them, as I told you I believed was the case, from the footprints. By some fortunate chance he has met with a friend amongst his captors—one who has managed somehow to leave that message for us."
"But who could that friend be?" wondered Milona, with puckered brow. "This is a very marked style of handwriting! I am quite sure I have never seen it before!"
"Just so; and he, whoever he may be, was thoughtful enough to remember that fact, and so took the clever precaution of getting Maurice to countersign it, as it were, in his own writing. He foresaw that otherwise we might suspect that the advice to wait till night and watch for the red airship might be a ruse to lead us astray."
"I suppose that must be the explanation," returned Milona thoughtfully. "But—where are we to look for this airship? Why couldn't he, while he was about it, tell us where to find her?"
"Probably he had no time to say more. Such a note would have to be scribbled by stealth, and then deposited, unnoticed by any one else, where we might find it. Whoever wrote that message was sharp enough to guess that we should come upon their tracks and follow them to the edge of the lake. Probably he knew that we were even then in the caverns searching about."
"Yes, yes! I think you have guessed aright. But what is to be our next move? I think we had better return and consult with Kumelda."
"Can't we follow the beggars, now that we know we are on the right track?" queried Bruce impatiently. "I, for one, don't feel inclined to sit down and do nothing till nightfall."
"We must see Kumelda and confer with him. This unknown friend advises us to wait till night, evidently, and Maurice says the advice is to be trusted. If we try to follow them, we may fall into some ambush, or wander about uselessly; and while we are looking in one direction they may escape in another. There are several entrances to this labyrinth besides the one we came in at."
"H'm! Perhaps you are right, Prince," Bruce agreed, though with evident reluctance. "But before we go to seek Kumelda, let us have a look at these fellows who attacked us. What a queer idea to fake themselves up in imitation of bats! What can be the object of it?"
None of the three captured men, as it turned out, were dead; but they were all badly wounded. Lukron had already been doing what he could in the way of "first aid," and they were reviving slowly under his ministrations. Bruce now examined more closely their strange disguise, and quickly made a discovery.
"India rubber—or something very like it!" he declared. "That accounts, Prince, for your electric wands taking no effect! A clever notion! Tell you what—this disguise might come in useful to us one day! I'm never above taking a hint from another, even though he may be an enemy. They've got other dresses underneath, I see. Shall we appropriate these pretty things as 'spoils of war' and take possession of them?"
"I have no objection," said Milona, laughing. "I can't, however, imagine your dressing yourself up in that way."
"I don't know," rejoined Bruce meditatively. "I've got the germ of an idea in my head—a mere vapoury sort of fancy as yet—but perhaps it will develop by and by."
Orders were given to Lukron to bring the three wounded prisoners with them; and then the whole party set out to retrace their steps. After a while they came across Kumelda, who had been exploring in other directions, and narrated to him all that had happened. He looked very grave over it.
"If, Prince, you are sure that you recognised Yumonto, that shows that Faronda has a hand in all this. It also shows that all the trouble we have taken to keep this expedition secret has been thrown away. At first sight it would almost seem as though treachery had been at work—as though Faronda had some spies in our midst who found out where we were going and sent him word. On the other hand, it may be that the meeting is accidental. Faronda may have sent Yumonto here independently, and without any idea of encountering us."
"Yes," said Milona reflectively. "That may be another explanation; after all, it may be only a coincidence. When you come to think of it, if Faronda had sent these people here on purpose to interfere with us, there would not have been one airship, but several—a squadron at least."
"Just so. I believe from what we have seen, and from this written message, that there is only one airship hereabouts; and where that one is hiding so cleverly passes my comprehension. However, she is still apparently somewhere in the neighbourhood—this message says as much—and it warns us that she is likely to try to get away in the night. We must take our measures and be on the look-out for her. If the thing be humanly possible, we will make sure of her capture!"
"It seems to me that we have decidedly cute foes to deal with here," Bruce put in. "If Faronda is at the bottom of it all he must be a clever chap!"
"He is certainly that," Kumelda said.
"Yet we tricked him finely once, when we dressed up Mike in his clothes and sailed unharmed through his whole fleet and under his very nose," chuckled Milona, and a hearty laugh went round at the recollection.
"That was largely owing to the pretty way in which friend Micky played a royal part—we must not forget that," Bruce observed, looking quizzically at his faithful henchman.
"Shure," said Mike, "I ought to be able to do that same. Wasn't me ancesthors kings av ould Oireland?"
"Of course they were, Micky—a—except, that is, those of them who were princes of Wales. But I was thinking whether, as you did so well on that occasion, we couldn't dress you up again."
"As another king, d'ye mane, Misther Bruce?" Micky queried eagerly. "Begorrah! It's meself as 'll do anything t' plaze ye—"
"No; as a bat this time," said Bruce.
There was another laugh at this, but Micky evidently saw nothing amusing in the idea. His face fell, and he drew back in disgust.
"Not that, Misther Bruce, darlin'. 'Tis jokin' ye are! Ye wouldn't have a dacent bhoy dress up in thim outrageous things?"
Poor Mike's rueful countenance only caused further merriment, for no one then supposed that Bruce had anything in his mind beyond a jest.
Kumelda now decided to defer further search for Maurice until they should be able to see what the night would bring forth. But he had other business in these caverns, and he set his people to work in another direction.
Bruce wished to get out of the labyrinth to look about outside.
"If we can't seek for Maurice inside, we can at least go out there and watch out for that mysterious airship," he pointed out to Milona. "We might even, by good luck, come plump upon her, without waiting for night."
Milona himself had not much faith in their chance of such a meeting, since he knew that his own party had been trying their best with three airships ever since the morning. But he saw that Bruce was in a disturbed, fitful state of mind, and he wisely judged that he would regain his composure in the open air sooner than in the depressing gloom of the underground caves and passages.
He therefore led his party into the open, and signalled for his aerial yacht. She had been cruising round in one direction, while the "Krastah" and the "Pilot" patrolled in others, but without finding any clue to guide them as to what had become of the vanishing craft. As for the "Satellite," she had gone off, carrying despatches to King Amando.
When Milona reached his yacht with his little party, he found his friends Tralona and Myontis on board; and for a while the time was occupied in comparing notes. Presently Tralona told of some large krondos, or giant eagles, which they had seen circling round a distant peak.
"If only Maurice were here," he said, "there would be a splendid chance for our friends to hunt them, and bag one or two of these creatures."
Milona caught at the suggestion. He perceived that here was a diversion well suited to take Bruce's thoughts, for a while, off the one subject upon which his mind was dwelling.
"That is a good thought, friend. Tralona," said he. "We have not Maurice with us just now, it is true, but I hope he will be with us to-morrow, and meantime we've the rest of the day to get through somehow. The other two airships can remain on guard, while we go off and try to bag a krondo. I am sure my friends will like to take a stuffed specimen with them when they return to their own world, for they have told us that there they have no birds nearly so large. What say you, friend Bruce?"
Bruce had by this time changed from his restless mood to one of gloomy abstraction, and he signified his assent without much display of interest. His thoughts were occupied with what was going to happen at night. The words of the stranger, "If you would save your friend," suggested how much depended upon whether they succeeded in capturing the red airship. If they failed in this, and failed to follow her—if she should get away unseen— then all trace of Maurice would be lost. The thought of such a disaster might well make him gloomy.
When, however, the "Shooting Star" began to soar up into the exhilarating breezes which played amongst the mountain peaks, and he felt the rush of air, as she dived, and soared, in chase of the big, flying game they were in pursuit of, his spirits gradually rose. Very soon he became, for the time at any rate, his normal self, and entered thoroughly into the spirit of the chase.
And indeed the sunshine was a glorious change after the sombre caverns where they had spent the previous part of the day. When they rose above the clouds, and he looked down upon them lying beneath, towering up here and there in massive, golden forms, which took the shapes now of enchanted castles, now of titanic fortresses, or, again, of fairy palaces, he became enthusiastic over the delights of airship travelling.
"You people have a splendid time," he exclaimed, "here on Mars—I beg pardon, I should say on Zotis! What a different life is yours to the life we live on our Earth, crawling always about like ants, or at the best travelling in railway trains, or evil- smelling motor-cars! What comparison is there between our fastest methods of going about and the grand feeling of freedom your airships give? Think what we inhabitants of Earth have lost all these years through our failure to whirl about in the air as you do!"
"Thrue for you, Misther Bruce," Mike joined in. "Phwat tales we shall be able t' tell thim all whin we go back. An' think, sorr, av the wise men we'll be, an' the clever notions we can put the puir benighted craythurs up to! But we'll 'ave t' patent thim furst, sorr, an' it's millyonaries we'll be, an'—"
Here Mike in his enthusiasm waved his arms so wildly about over the taffrail that he all but lost his balance, and would inevitably have fallen out had not Bruce and Myontis grabbed at his legs and caught him in time.
"Ye'll never live to see the ould counthree agen, Mike, if ye don't take more care," said Bruce, imitating the other's brogue. "That was a near shave!"
Mike looked a little foolish, and rather frightened, too, for he had no parachute dress on, and there could have been but one result from a fall.
"I ain't yit got me sea legs—I mane me air legs—I be feared, Misther Bruce," he murmured apologetically.
"Hullo! What's the matter now?" cried Milona, breaking in abruptly.
Something was certainly going wrong with the yacht, which had begun pitching and tossing in most unusual style, almost like a marine yacht in a rough sea.
Fortunately they were passing at the time near a high tableland, and Milona turned the craft on to it, and "beached" her upon a stretch of greensward.
PRECISELY what had gone wrong was for some time a mystery. Milona and Oleron began a puzzled investigation, and while they were thus engaged with the crew, the rest got out and strolled about upon the rock.
They found themselves upon a lofty plateau, with a huge peak soaring up still higher on one side, and below them a series of terraces or ledges, descending in more or less precipitous form.
They had travelled far away from their starting point, which could now scarcely be seen in the distance. Up to now they had only seen two of the great birds they came out to hunt, and those they had chased for some time without success. Finally they had lost them, in each case amongst tangles of peaks and pinnacles into which they fled, and among which it would have been dangerous to manoeuvre the yacht.
Tralona and Bruce wandered off to the further edge of the plateau, near the end of the precipitous peak, and looked down from the dizzy height upon the endless chains of lower mountain tops around them.
"I wonder what the trouble can be?" Tralona speculated. "It must be something very unusual. I have never known the 'Shooting Star' behave in this way before!" Bruce had become low-spirited again, and inclined to be pessimistic.
"Is this another trick of fortune to prevent our catching that red airship?" he wanted to know. "Now if the matter cannot be righted, and we are left stranded on this mountain top all night!"
"Oh, no! One of the other airships would hunt us up and take us off," Tralona declared cheerfully. "Do not fear for that. At the worst we shall only find that our sport has been interrupted for a while."
"We didn't seem to have much chance of bagging anything," Bruce commented. "I fancy the beggars are too shy or too cunning to be caught so easily. I should like to secure a specimen, all the same, for I can see that they are far larger than anything on our planet. Some of the biggest flying birds we can boast of are of the vulture tribe—condors they are called—and they have what we consider tremendous wings. But I should judge that these birds of yours are double the size of the largest condor I have ever heard of. Still, they do not appear so fierce and aggressive as I expected. Instead, I thought they seemed shy, and only anxious to get away."
"Ah, that is because those we saw are solitary birds. They are seldom very bold when alone. But when they are together in flocks—even as few as three or four—they often become very— Stars and moons! Here they come! Look out, my friend! Look out! Make for the yacht!"
It so happened that, even as he spoke, the fates were arranging a very practical proof of the truth of the young Martian's words. Bruce heard a chorus of wild, hoarse screams, and the whirring of great wings, and, looking up, saw a number of large dark forms hurtling down upon them from the top of the rocky pinnacle, near the base of which they were standing.
It was all very well to say "Make for the yacht," but they had wandered some distance away, and there was no time to reach her.
As luck would have it, too, they had both left their electric weapons on board, never thinking that they would be required during a short stroll upon that isolated peak. Fortunate was it, once more, as it turned out, that Bruce had his revolver. But even that, as he quickly learned, was but a poor weapon to depend upon against a number of such terrible assailants.
Even when Mike came running up, as he quickly did, revolver in hand, the two were no match for the crowd of foes around them.
Bruce expected every moment to be swept off the edge of the plateau, and sent rolling down from ledge to ledge among the crags below, or even to be seized and borne bodily away by one of these feathered monsters.
Luckily the approach of the birds had been seen by some one on board the yacht, who had given the alarm in time, and a number of the crew had snatched up their electric weapons, and now made a rush to the assistance of Bruce and his companions, shouting loudly as they ran. This attracted the attention of the majority of the birds, which flew at the new-comers, attacking them with savage fury, and affording the hard-pressed three a little breathing space.
What then exactly happened no one could afterwards describe with any certainty. A shrieking mob of feathered fiends, striking with beak and claw, as well as with monstrous wings, were mixed up with a crowd of men, amongst whom Milona and Oleron were prominent, trying desperately to fight their way towards Bruce.
There were sharp, crackling detonations, and stabs of bright flame, as the rambas discharged their deadly flashes, and louder reports from the pistols, which were doing their part in the confused mêlée. Many men were knocked over, and would have been quickly torn to pieces by beak and claw but for the devotion of their comrades, who rushed intrepidly to their aid, and beat off their ferocious foes. A terrible cry that rent the air told of a poor fellow who had been swept off the plateau altogether, and whose form was last seen disappearing over the edge.
The conflict ended at last in the repulse of the attack; and a few survivors flew off, uttering screams of baffled rage as they went, and leaving fully a dozen of their number on the ground. But though the yacht's company were victorious, they had suffered terribly in the fray, as very quickly appeared when there was time to look round. A hand-to-hand fight with an equal number of human foes, armed with swords and daggers, would scarcely have left the victors in worse case. Hardly one was there who could not show some nasty wound. Some, probably the majority, indeed, bore many wounds; and many were so covered with blood and dust and crimson-dyed feathers which were sticking to them, that they looked to be in even worse case than they really were.
Bruce came off no better than the rest, though he seemed to take little account of the fact when Milona, himself bleeding from several ugly scratches, inquired after his injuries. Mike and Myontis both looked as if they had been rolling amongst "wait-a- bit" thorns, while Oleron had evidently but narrowly missed losing one of his eyes.
Milona announced that they had discovered the cause of the breakdown, and had surmounted the difficulty as far as they could. He advised that they should get aboard promptly and descend into the valley below, where he espied a stream of water tumbling and foaming amongst the rocks. There they would be able to bathe their wounds and wash off the dust and stains of the late encounter.
The largest of their fallen foes were carried on board as trophies, and a few minutes later a start was made.
Instead, however, of bounding off in her usual buoyant, free manner, the yacht went slowly, and seemed to labour along till she had gone some distance from the plateau. Then, by degrees, matters improved, until she resumed her ordinary behaviour.
Milona, who, with Oleron, had been engaged in watching the motors and other machinery, came aft to where Bruce was seated. The look of worry and anxiety that had been on the prince's face had changed to one of satisfaction.
"It's all right now," he assured Bruce. "It was that rock that did it."
"Rock? What rock?" asked Bruce, surprised.
"That high mass which shut in one side of the plateau where we halted. It is magnetic, and some of our mechanism is so finely adjusted that the vicinity of magnetic rock such as that will throw it completely out of gear."
"I should never have dreamed, of that," said Bruce.
Oleron, who had just joined: them, nodded his head.
"It is so," he observed. "Magnetic rocks set up a disturbing influence around them which will often throw our electric motors out of gear. It is a phenomenon which our scientists have long puzzled over, and which has baffled the wisest of them, time and again. It is said that there is a city somewhere on our globe, so completely surrounded by magnetic rocks that no airship can pass them. Very little is known about the matter, however, for if there is really any city upon the other side of the magnetic barrier, the people keep to themselves and hold no communication with outsiders. But I myself have doubts about the story, and am inclined to regard it as a 'traveller's tale,' or some old legend in a new form."
"Nay, I believe there is good foundation for it," Milona affirmed. "I have heard the King, my father, speak of it; and he even said he intended to go one day and explore the place, and find out the truth about it. He would not talk seriously of taking that trouble if he did not feel convinced that there must be some solid foundation for the story."
After a visit to the mountain stream which Milona had descried, the voyagers returned, as the afternoon was waning, to the entrance to the underground caves. There they again dived into the labyrinth to find Kumelda, and arrange finally with him their plan of action for the coming night.
Just as the sun was setting the whole party of adventurers emerged once more, and, going on board the waiting airships, returned to the old castle, leaving the place which they had spent so much time in searching and watching, silent and deserted.
WHEN night fell, one of Mars' moons—the one which our astronomers have named Deimos, but which was known to the Martians as Shelda—was seen riding in an almost cloudless sky. It is the smaller of Mars' two satellites, besides being the farthest away from the planet, and consequently at no time is its light very brilliant, even when at the full. This particular night it was not full, and it shed, therefore, but a subdued radiance upon the landscape. Its rays shimmered and glistened upon the ripples of the lake, and lighted the soaring mountain peaks, but failed to illumine the sombre valleys or to penetrate their shadows.
In these shadows vague shapes moved about noiselessly and furtively. Upon the ground many creatures, with forms that to us would appear weird and uncanny, came forth to seek their prey, often only to become themselves the prey of winged things that were hawking to and fro in the air above them.
Of the latter, the giant bats were the largest and most formidable, though they were not much in evidence, preferring, for the most part, to keep to the shadows. Yet from time to time they ventured into the moonlight, especially if they saw a chance to make a swoop upon some unwary victim.
This being so, there was nothing remarkable or unusual in the appearance of three bat-like shapes which sallied out of one of the entrances to the underground labyrinth and made their way upwards to the dark side of a high ridge. Here there happened to be a small cave, and into its inky depths the three silently disappeared. At least they seemed to disappear; but had any one been there to watch them closely, it would have been found that they had halted just within the entrance, and there remained. Such a spectator would further have seen that they then proceeded to act in a very un-batlike manner. Instead of hanging heads downwards from the roof, for instance, as bats usually delight in doing when at rest, they stretched themselves full length upon the ground. Also there was certainly very little that was bat- like in the way they whispered together, and peered out over the valley below through night glasses.
Somewhere near the centre of this valley was the ancient crater, in which mysterious gleams of light had been seen, and from which had issued the asphyxiating fumes which had prevented the searchers from exploring its cavernous interior. Its great mouth lay just too low for the moon's rays to touch it, yet near enough for it to be dimly visible from the cave.
For a time nothing further happened worthy of note. The silence of desolation, of the desert, brooded over the whole region, save when, now and again, a hoarse scream or frenzied shriek from some night prowler pierced the still air and died away in echoes among the rocks.
Then, suddenly, a smothered gasp of astonishment burst from the three bat-like watchers lying just inside the mouth of the cave. They nudged one another, and rubbed their glasses—and one of them, at least, rubbed his eyes—as though they could scarcely believe that they saw aright.
For out of that same crater-like pit from which those intolerably suffocating gases had been rising throughout the day there were now seen ascending—some more bat-like shapes! Surprising, incredible, as the thing appeared, there was no doubt as to the fact that, out of that deadly gulf, where, as it had seemed, no living thing could possibly exist, several creatures—there were just six of them—rose, flying heavily and clumsily, mounting higher and higher, till they met the rays of the moon. Then they turned aside to gain the concealment of the shadow thrown by a ridge, and under its protection sailed on up the valley in the direction of the lake.
They did not, however, go far enough to fly over the lake itself, but kept to the shelter of a high peak which overlooked it. There they acted very much as the three similar forms in the cave were doing—that is to say, they threw themselves down in the concealment of the shadow cast by the rock, and gazed long and carefully through glasses out over the lake.
From where they now were they could see the old castle standing out clearly in the moonlight, with the three airships lying upon the ground beside it. There was no sign of life to be seen; to all appearance the whole party of travellers, tired out and discouraged by their arduous and useless search throughout the day, had given up the quest and retired to their quarters, bent only upon a good night's rest.
But the half-dozen scouts were not content with a casual or hasty inspection. They remained for what seemed a long time gazing through their glasses and watching the castle and its surroundings. Only after a long and most careful survey did they appear to be satisfied. At last four of them slowly rose, and, leaving the other two still on the watch, they returned the way they had come, and disappeared into the mouth of the old crater.
The three "bats" in the cave, who had watched everything thus far in grim silence, now drew long breaths, and began to confer in subdued whispers. The three were Milona, Bruce, and Mike, dressed up in the grotesque disguises they had taken from their assailants of the cavern.
"Well! That's what we should call a corker!" was Bruce's comment. "They actually came out of that place from which, the whole day long, nothing but foul fumes seemed to come! What on Earth—I should say, what on Mars—does it mean?"
In whispers they wonderingly discussed the meaning of what they had seen, seeking for some reasonable explanation, but finding themselves, at the end, more puzzled than at the beginning.
Then a soft "Hush!" from Milona caused a relapse into silence. Something was again issuing from the old crater, and they watched it through their glasses with an interest which increased every moment.
They saw the same four bat-like figures emerge, flying even more heavily and clumsily than before, for this time they were bearing some kind of a load between them. Slowly and laboriously they rose upwards, and then, for a brief space, the moonlight fell upon them, and revealed what it was they were carrying.
"Great Peter!" breathed Bruce. "It's a body they've got there! A dead man!"
"Hush! They're coming this way!" Milona warned. "Perhaps they are making for this cave to hide the body in. We had better get farther inside."
But the flying quartette were not coming to the cave with their strange burden, though they passed quite close to it, all unconscious that three people, dressed in the same fantastic garb as themselves, were watching them from its dark recesses.
They passed onwards only a few yards, and then halted, and laid their load down upon a narrow ledge on the brink of a dizzy precipice. Then it became clear that it was not a dead body they had brought, but a living one, strapped and bound, for one of them addressed it, the words being distinctly heard by the concealed watchers.
"Lie there, Mentlah! and prepare yourself for the death you have so well deserved," said a harsh voice. "It will be but a little while before the real bats find you out, and come and devour you bit by bit—unless, indeed, you prefer a quicker end, and one which will probably be less painful. If you have pluck enough, you can roll yourself over the edge, and so seek death by being dashed to pieces upon the rocks below. You have your choice! So may all traitors to our cause perish!"
"Cowardly murderers!" their hapless victim answered, in scornful tones. "If you had aught to complain of in me, why did you not meet me face to face and fight it out like a man? But you will have to reckon with my guardian, Molkris, for this!"
"We shall tell him that you were accidentally killed by a fall over a cliff, and who is there that can contradict us? But enough of this. They are waiting for us to start. This night, Mentlah, we shall pass your home, which you will never more see. As we pass it, we will waft to it a farewell kiss from each of us in your name!"
With a hoarse laugh at this brutal jest, the speaker turned away, and he and the other three made their way back to the crater, where they once more disappeared from view.
"The scoundrels!" exclaimed Bruce. "What a cold-blooded business! I don't care who the chap is, or what he has done—"
"He has probably done nothing very dreadful," said Milona. "He is but a young fellow, I take it, judging by the voice—"
"Aye, and his speech was neither that of a villain nor a coward!" Bruce rejoined, with conviction. "We must rescue him! Quick! He may roll himself off the rock at once rather than lie there to be slowly hacked to pieces by those hateful creatures!"
"We must be careful. If we are seen from below we shall probably defeat our own plans, and destroy all chance of carrying them out and rescuing Maurice. I will try and get speech with him."
Going to the mouth of the cave, Milona called softly: "Mentlah!"
He uttered the name two or three times before the reply came. Probably the one addressed was at first too surprised to answer. Then his voice was heard:
"Who is that calling me? Who are you?"
"Some who would be your friends and help you. But we are in doubt what it were best to do. We are in the cave here, and have no wish to be seen."
"Ah! Are you the friends of the stranger who was captured?"
"Maurice?" Bruce interposed.
"Yes, yes! Tell me, is he safe? Was it you who left the warning message for us?"
"Ah! You found it, then! That is well, and I am glad. Yes, he is safe enough, so far. How long he may continue so is another matter. As to how you can help me, if you could manage to get me into the cave without being seen, they would think, if they presently look this way again, that I have rolled off the ledge of my own accord, and I don't suppose they will then trouble any further about me."
"Good! We will risk it, anyhow."
The rescue was promptly effected. The stranger was carried into the cave and released. Then he stood up, and stretched his arms and legs, which were stiff and sore from the tightness of his bonds.
He was, as they afterwards found (for they could not see much of him where they were), a good-looking young fellow, with a well- set-up figure, and eyes that were at once fearless and honest. In age he seemed to be but a year or two older than Bruce. What, perhaps, more particularly attracted them at the moment was his easy, free manner, and a general air of good breeding, which were noticeable even in the semi-darkness of the cave.
He evinced no surprise at his rescuers' strange disguise, but began to thank them in terms that were at once eloquent and modest; but Bruce cut him short:
"Say no more, my friend. You have befriended my chum, Maurice; that is sufficient for us to know. Now tell us quickly: How are we to get him out of the clutches of these people? Why are they keeping him prisoner? Where do they intend taking him if they get away? And where are they? Where is this precious red airship?"
Bruce poured out question after question in eager impatience, and without waiting for reply. But ere, indeed, the stranger had time to answer, there came an interruption. He grasped Bruce's arm, and, pointing out through the mouth of the cave, drew him further into the shadow.
"There!" said he. "There is the answer to your last question!"
Bruce and the others looked in the direction he indicated, and there, to their astonishment, they beheld the red airship itself. It was rising up out of the dark, yawning, cavernous mouth of the ancient crater.
The two scouts who had been left on the watch now came towards her, went on board, and at once she set off at a great speed, passing diagonally over the ridge in which was the cave.
Then the stranger turned and stared at his rescuers:
"You have let her go—and you cannot follow her!" he exclaimed.
Milona did not reply, but he and Bruce ran out of the cave, pausing on the terrace outside. A moment after there was a spurt of flame, followed by the hissing scream of a rocket as it soared into the air.
"That," said he, turning to the stranger, who had followed him out, "that is the signal which will bring our airships along. They are waiting for it, and will be here in a few minutes. Then we will give chase; and we mean to capture that red airship even if we have to follow her round the world!"
Even while he was speaking, an answering rocket was seen soaring up into the sky over the distant lake. It told that his signal had been seen.
In an astonishingly short time afterwards the "Shooting Star" came tearing along the valley, followed at a little distance by the more ponderous "Krastah," and the stoutly-built little craft called the "Pilot."
Prince Milona and his companions scrambled on board his yacht, and then the three flying craft set off through the night in chase of the mysterious red airship.
A STERN chase is proverbially a long one; and so it proved in the case of the mysterious red airship. The "Shooting Star" and her two consorts put on the utmost speed of which they were capable, but for some time none of them seemed to gain. The larger of the three—the heavy war vessel called the "Krastah"—was, indeed, soon out-distanced and began to drop astern. Then the "Pilot" fell off, and soon there were only two left in the race—the red airship and the Prince's yacht.
It was an exciting time for those on board the "Shooting Star." Bruce had had some thrilling experiences in airships before, but never anything precisely like this. They were rushing through the night at the highest speed known even on the planet Mars, in pursuit of what was evidently—like the "Shooting Star" herself— a "flyer."
Milona began to wonder more than ever what vessel this could be which could thus hold its own against his splendid racer. Naturally, too, he wondered who owned her, and why he had never come across her, or even heard of her before.
He would have liked to question the stranger they had rescued— the one of whom all they knew was that his name was Mentlah—but it was no time for talk just then. The young Prince and his officers had all their time occupied in looking after their machinery, upon which they were compelled to concentrate their attention. Everything was being strained to the utmost; the whirling fans and spirals were humming out booming notes like a great organ; and this, with the mad rush of the air past their ears, rendered all talk a matter of difficulty.
There was anxiety, too, in all minds. Never before had the yacht been driven so hard; never had her delicate machinery been put to such extreme tests; and those in charge were assailed by unpleasant doubts as to how long it would bear the tension.
Bruce was in a very passion of excitement; a prey to a perfect whirl of emotions. He had expected that when once it came to a fair race between the two aircraft, the prince's yacht would easily overhaul the other. As the actual state of the case was slowly borne in upon him, his anxiety increased to fever heat. If the Prince's yacht failed to catch the stranger, then their hopes of rescuing Maurice would be small indeed; and the bare possibility of such a thing was terrible, maddening.
He went forward among the whirring motors to try to speak to Milona, who had just climbed up to a look-out bridge, and thither Bruce followed him. They were joined a moment later by the stranger, Mentlah.
Bruce was about to ask a question, when Milona spoke first:
"We're gaining," he cried in delight, "I thought yonder craft could not keep it up at that rate for very long! She's going slower, and we're gaining!"
It was a great relief to Bruce to hear these words. He took a glass from the look-out man and stared through it for a space. There was still a feeble moonlight, and the craft they were chasing could be dimly seen in the distance. As he gazed at her it certainly seemed as though she was growing larger to the vision—very slowly, yet still perceptibly.
"Her motors are giving out—or at least slowing down!" Milona declared. "We'd better slow down, too, a little. Better that than risk a breakdown, now that we have got the better of her!"
Suddenly the speaker felt a fierce grip upon his arm. The stranger had seized it convulsively. He pointed to the red airship, near which had appeared a small light. At first it had seemed to be no more than an ordinary red light, such as any craft might carry on the mast or the stern. But soon it could be seen that it was drifting in the air like a floating star, and that the airship they were chasing was leaving it behind her.
"Prince," he cried, "beware of that floating light! It is the red fire ball!"
"Red fire ball? What is that?" asked Milona.
"You do not know? Then let me warn you again. If it touches us we are lost! It is an explosive of the most deadly power and terrific force; and will annihilate whatever it touches. I know— I know—be warned! It is certain death! Ah! There is another! I thought so! And there will be more!"
"What does it mean?" Milona asked, evidently bewildered, and a little doubtful.
"Do you not understand? They find they cannot outdistance you, and so they are sending these things out to delay you. You are bound to mount upwards or turn aside to avoid the fire balls, and that will enable them to get ahead again."
"I don't know," said Milona doggedly. "I can't see why we should turn aside for little firework things like those."
"They are coming nearer! In another minute or two it will be too late!" exclaimed Mentlah, in tones of almost frenzied entreaty. "Prince, if you value your own life, or the lives of your friends—"
"Very well—since you insist that it must be so," Milona answered reluctantly. He gave the necessary orders, and the yacht mounted suddenly upwards.
They soared over the highest of the queer red stars—by this time there were several of them lying right in their course—and as it passed under them Bruce looked over the side at it with great curiosity.
He saw nothing but a small, luminous, floating red ball, just such as might have been thrown out by what we know as a Roman candle, but lasting much longer.
As the thing went sailing away beneath them an idea occurred to him. He drew his revolver, and taking careful aim at it, fired.
The result was little short of appalling. An explosion followed which shook the yacht as though it had been made of cardboard. The motors slowed down and then stopped. It was a very disagreeable and startling proof of the truth of the warning the stranger had given them. At the moment the bullet had struck it the mysterious star had already passed away astern some distance. It was clear from the tremendous force of the explosion, even at that distance, that they and the yacht would have been blown to fragments if it had actually touched her, or had exploded much nearer.
"This is terrible," Milona could not help saying. "Moreover, it is against the rules of civilised warfare—"
"The one the red airship belongs to does not trouble his head about rules," said Mentlah, grimly. "If anyone interferes with him he just uses any means he chooses against them; and this is only one of his little inventions. He has many others ready if this fails—as you will find out if you escape his fire balls. But quick—look to your motors, Prince, or the other balls will be upon us!"
It was all very well to say, "Look to your motors," but it seemed at first as though they had received some permanent injury. Milona and his lieutenants spent several anxious minutes investigating what had happened. The end of it was that they found only one spiral had really suffered permanent injury, and men were set to work to rig up a spare one.
"You nearly brought us to grief, friend Bruce, just then," observed Milona, when all had been put right and they were once more under way.
Bruce needed no reminder. He had been reproaching himself ever since.
"It was a silly, thoughtless thing to do, Prince," he confessed, ruefully. "But who would ever have dreamed that such consequences would follow?"
"Perhaps it is as well," Mentlah remarked, coolly. "You only half believed me before. Now you have had an object-lesson."
Both Milona and Bruce turned and looked at the young stranger who thus criticised them and their doings so freely. His outspoken words made them both wonder more than ever who he was. Though he knew that one of his rescuers was Prince Milona, son of the great King Amando, he was not one whit abashed or discomposed. His cool, courageous behaviour when he had lain bound and in expectation of a horrible death, seemed well in keeping, so to speak, with the easy assurance and self-reliance he now displayed in his words and manner.
Milona was impressed in spite of himself. He pondered for a few moments, then said:
"Well, now, what would you advise us to do? You understand the people we have to deal with better than we do. What do you think is our best course? We have to rescue our friend, come what may. Beyond that I care nothing for the red airship, or those on board her. She could go where she pleases, so far as we are concerned."
"Your advice to us was to capture the craft," Bruce reminded the young stranger, some suspicion in his tone. "Why did you give us that advice if you knew there was such danger in it? Have you altered your view because you are on board here with us, and would have been killed with us if you had not warned us?"
Mentlah flushed under the other's evident distrust.
"I see your point," he said quickly, "and I admit I have laid myself open to your suspicions. But it was unintentional on my part. Although I know about these fire balls—for I have before witnessed their terribly destructive effects—I had no idea the people I was with had any on board. I pledge you my word to that. It came upon me as a shock when I caught sight of the first one, because I realised in a moment that, apart from the danger to all of us here, it altered the whole position."
"Well, well, I accept your explanation; but now what are we to do?" Milona returned. "We do not wish to follow yonder vessel indefinitely. We came out here on a quest—that is to say," he corrected himself, "upon a journey—"
"Upon a quest in which you have been forestalled, Prince," Mentlah put in coolly.
Milona started. "What do you mean?" he asked, almost fiercely.
"What I say. You came out here to seek for a certain very rare mineral, known, I believe, to scientists as solaynium. The owner of the red airship had sent out a party about the same time, to the same place, to seek for the same thing. They were there first, and they found what they—and you—wanted; and they are now bearing it back to their master."
"That cannot be!" exclaimed the Prince, incredulously.
"It is as I have said," the young stranger declared firmly. "Therefore it is the more necessary that you should follow yonder craft. If you follow quietly, and show no eagerness to come to close quarters, they will cease to send out the fire balls; for I have heard that they are very difficult to replace. But follow her you must, for a double reason—for the sake of your friend, and because she is carrying what you want—and what King Amando wants so urgently to render the great 'Ramaylia' once more serviceable."
Again Prince Milona could not repress a start. He stared in astonishment at the young stranger, and replied haughtily: "You seem to be very well posted in our affairs! Who are you who know so much?"
Mentlah smiled. "I am one who is anxious to serve you and your royal father, Prince, in return for which I shall ask for my own reward. Not," he added hastily, with a wave of his hand, "not a mere sordid matter of money, or that kind of thing, Prince. When the time comes—if haply it ever arrives—I will tell everything to King Amando. Till then I beg you to allow me to say no more than I think absolutely necessary. I may remind you that I aided you before you knew even of my existence. But for me you would never have learnt the exact truth about your friend, or have known how to follow him."
Prince Milona listened to this in silence, and at first somewhat coldly. But all the time he eyed the speaker with a keen glance, which the stranger met fearlessly.
Then, with a sudden change of manner, and as one who has made up his mind, he extended his hand, and exclaimed:
"Let it be as you wish! I will not inquire more than you care to tell; and meantime you shall have my full trust!"
ACTING upon the stranger's advice the "Shooting Star" slowed down somewhat, and followed the red airship in such a manner as merely to keep her in sight. Thereupon, as Mentlah had predicted, the people on board ceased to send out the dreaded fire balls.
The hours passed, and the daylight came, and still the position of affairs was unaltered. Those on the prince's yacht looked behind them in vain for any sign of their consorts, the "Krastah" and the "Pilot." Those two airships had dropped hopelessly out of the race; and when Prince Milona attempted to communicate with them by wireless message he failed to get any reply.
This became a new source of trouble, for it was impossible to put aside the thought that they might have met with disaster through running against the fire balls.
Mentlah, however, was inclined to think that they were so far behind that the balls would have sunk downwards out of the way before either of the airships had come up to them.
The nature of the territory they were passing over could now be discerned by the travellers, and it could be seen that it was little more than a desolate, waterless wilderness, without signs of habitation.
"We shall come to a different kind of country by and bye," Mentlah observed. "A flourishing land with plenty of inhabitants, and a wide river and a great lake, with numbers of boats and vessels."
"What sort of boats and vessels?" one of Milona's friends— Tralona—asked. "What are they used for?"
"Why, to go about in, of course," returned the young stranger, in some surprise. "There are pleasure boats, both small and large, beautiful sailing yachts, such as I am told you never see nowadays in any other part of our world. There are boats to live in, too—great floating palaces, some of them. Many of the people live altogether in boats."
Tralona looked incredulous, while Myontis exclaimed, sarcastically, "What a funny place it must be! What strange people!"
Mentlah flushed. "There's nothing particularly funny about it," he replied, rather warmly. "It is the people's way of living. They don't go about in airships like people in other parts of our world do, and there being no airships, why should it be funny if they go about in boats and sailing yachts?"
"No airships?" echoed Myontis. "Why, that sounds funnier than ever! What a benighted, old-world lot of folk they must be! There should be a good opportunity for somebody to make money by teaching them—"
"They do not require teaching," was the ready answer. "Instead, they could probably teach you a good deal—or at least their ruler could. He is not a good man, by any means, and he is not greatly beloved by his people—but he is one of the cleverest inventors on our globe. I have no love for him; but I am bound in honesty to say that much about him. He it is who invented those awful fire balls which would have blown you to pieces if you had encountered them without warning. As to the question of airships, there are none—or at least, very few—for the simple reason that the great rocky rampart which surrounds the country is so powerfully magnetic that it magnetises all metal machinery, even at a distance of many miles, and renders it unworkable."
Milona uttered a sound not unlike a long-drawn whistle, and turned and looked at his lieutenant, Oleron.
"That must be the place we were talking of yesterday!" he exclaimed. "The country my father, the King, spoke of trying one day to find out. But," turning again to Mentlah, "we have all regarded the stories about this land as more or less mythical. How, then, is it—if it really exists—that more is not known about it?"
"For the reason I have just explained," said Mentlah promptly. "No airships or motors of any kind can approach it. When travellers come our way their airships become useless before they get in sight of the houses. And finding they can't go forward, and seeing nothing before them except a seemingly uninteresting desert, with bare mountains beyond, they are usually glad to turn about and get back as best they can. If, however, they are so curious as to insist on travelling forward on foot—well, then the 'men-bats' take care of them. It is not likely their friends in the country they came from will ever hear of them again."
"The 'men-bats'!" exclaimed Bruce. "What? Such as we have seen?"
Mentlah nodded. "Yes, they belong to our land," he explained. "They are our ruler's police, in a sense. Strangers are regarded as interlopers and spies, and receive scant mercy; and the general inhabitants are not much better off. His hand is heavy upon all of them; and these myrmidons of his, these ugly, clumsy men-bats, are hated and detested as the instruments of his tyranny."
"Tell me," said Bruce. "What is the object in dressing them up in that fantastic disguise?"
"'Tis a custom which goes back farther than I can tell you. How it started I do not know. Perhaps the men themselves are ashamed of some of their own vile deeds, and are glad to go about to carry out their orders so disguised that they shall not be afterwards recognised by the friends of their victims."
Bruce shuddered. "A nice sort of country to live in," he commented. "And that is the place they are taking my friend to!"
"But what is the real name of this country?" Milona asked. "And who is the ruler you speak of?"
"The country is called Mardaylia, but its chief city is named Corudia. The ruler is known as King Zandalla."
"Zandalla!" Milona repeated in surprise. "Yes, I know that name! But some say there is no such man. Is he a real being, or a myth?"
"He is real enough, Prince—a little too real for some of us," returned Mentlah; and there was a grating bitterness in his tone. "And now, having told you thus much, it is time to tell you a little more. Zandalla is an unscrupulous tyrant, and rules his people by cruelty and suppression. He is ambitious, too. Being— as I have said—a clever inventor, and a great scientist, he has grown tired of having his talents confined within such narrow limits. He aims now at becoming a great man in the outer world. He boasts that he has made discoveries which will enable him, when he chooses, to conquer the whole world. He and King Faronda——"
"Yes, Prince. And this is something which your father, King Amanda, would like to know—Zandalla and Faronda are plotting and scheming together to break forth when the time comes, and conquer other countries, your own included. At present, the one thing which holds them in check—the sole thing they are afraid of—is King Amando's mighty airship—the 'Ramaylia.' But they are building another 'Ramaylia'—or rather a great airship like her, but bigger still, one, that is, which will be able—so they hope—to meet her boldly and destroy her. I said they are building this great ship, but as a matter of fact, I have been told that she has been built, and is almost ready to challenge the 'Ramaylia.' She is called the 'Conqueror,' and if she is finished before the 'Ramaylia' is ready for use again she will have an easy conquest."
"You predict very cheerful things, friend Mentlah," muttered Milona, biting his lip.
"I only state what I believe is the actual state of the case, Prince," Mentlah answered steadily. "The reason that Faronda has taken no hostile steps against King Amando for some time past is that he has been waiting for Zandalla's great airship to be completed. He thinks it scarcely worth while to run any risks meantime. And now it has come to this, that both he and King Amando have sent parties to the place we have just left to search for some very rare metal, which each is anxious to obtain before the other can get it."
"How can you know all this?" Milona queried.
"Yumonto, Faronda's chief officer, has discovered what was wanted," Mentlah went on, calmly disregarding the Prince's interruption. "He has done more; he has blown up the cavern in which it was found—or rather the galleries leading to it—so that even if your people know exactly where to look, it will take them months—a year or two, may be—to clear a road to it."
Milona at this looked very grave.
"My friend," said he, "I must admit that if all this is true, the information is extremely serious. I ought not to be here. I ought at once to return and inform the King. Yet, as you know, I cannot do that because your friend Yumonto, or Zandalla, or whoever it is, has carried off a friend of mine—one who is my guest—and I cannot abandon him."
"That I know, Prince. I was going on to say that in all probability your presence here in our country—for we are nearly there—may happen to be the very best thing possible in your own interests. It does not suit us—some of us, I mean—that the tyrant Zandalla should carry out his ambitious schemes. So far from wishing to see him more powerful, there are some of us who would prefer to see him deposed and a more acceptable man put in his place. Also, we are quite satisfied with our present peaceful existence, and have no wish to be mixed up in wars with the rest of the world. Still less do we like the idea of being enrolled as soldiers and fighters, and sent forth, against our wills, to fight for him in order that he may become more powerful and have more people to tyrannise over. Therefore there are some among us who are ready to help you against him if you will help us now while there is yet time to nip these precious schemes in the bud, as my guardian expresses it."
"If that be so you may be sure I am ready, and that King Amando will——"
"King Amando can do nothing just now," Mentlah declared, shaking his head. "What is done must be done secretly—by stratagem. If you will come as guests to our castle, my guardian, whose name is Molkris, and who is one of the chief citizens of the country, will, I know, be glad to receive you. Then we will together form some plan, and enlist the help of others who think as we do. I am able to suggest all this because we had already practically resolved upon something of the kind before I left home to accompany Yumonto and his party on this expedition. Doubtless their calling upon me to go with them was only a plot to get rid of me. They suspected that we had some plan afoot, and had already resolved to murder me; only they thought they could do it more easily while away than at home. Feeling doubtful whether I should live to see my home again, I felt reckless, and would have deserted and come over to you if I could have found a way. But they gave me no chance to do that. However, when they captured your friend, I began to see that the event might turn out a means of communicating with you and getting you either to capture the red airship or follow her to her home. And thus, if they had not already put me to death, I should have a chance."
Milona was silent for a while; then he said meditatively: "It is a strange adventure, to enter upon, and I am not at all sure that King Amando would approve. Yet I do not see very well how I can refuse, things being as they are. What do you say, friend Bruce— will you take the risk?"
"You need not ask me, Prince. I am ready to take any risk which holds out a hope of rescuing poor Maurice from the clutches of such an unscrupulous brute as this Zandalla appears to be!"
"Very well, then; it is settled. But what is your idea? What plan have you in your mind, friend Mentlah?"
"There are two things we can try for," was the answer. "One is to enable your friend to escape to us; the other is to carry off the piece of solaynium which Zandalla will now be in possession of, and convey it to King Amando. If we can accomplish those two things by stratagem it will be all that is required. You will have your friend free, and we shall have rendered Zandalla comparatively harmless. Then I hope that King Amando will take steps to remove him, for he is only a usurper, and place the rightful heir in his place."
"And who may that be?"
"He will be forthcoming when wanted," was the enigmatic reply. "You can understand, Prince, how your secret presence here will hearten those who at heart sympathise with us but are afraid to make a move. It will be a sort of guarantee to them that, if we succeed thus far, King Amando in the future will back us with his whole power, and send the 'Ramaylia,' which will then be once more available."
"But how can she help here if the magnetic rocks render airships useless?" Bruce asked in surprise.
"The 'Ramaylia' is an exception," Mentlah explained. "She can soar so high as to be beyond the reach of the magnetic force; and from there she can threaten the whole city with destruction. That would be sufficient to frighten our enemies into submission. Zandalla's own people would be ready to seize him and offer him as a prisoner rather than allow him to risk such a calamity."
"I see. Well, so be it," Milona finally decided. "We can but try. And now what is our next move?"
"Will your yacht float on water, Prince?"
"Yes, she makes a very good boat, and we always carry sweeps and sails for use in case of emergency."
"I thought so. We must turn back now, and seem to go away, as if giving the whole thing up. Then to-night we will come on again, and I will guide you to the river. That is as far as you will be able to go in the air. We will drop on to the water, and float down to my home, where there is a place in which your yacht can be housed and hidden away. We are near enough now to my country to make it pretty certain that the people in the red airship are taking your friend to our city. Now that I am sure as to that, there is no need to follow them any further. We can turn back and wait for nightfall."
THE "Shooting Star" turned round as though she had abandoned the chase in despair, and was bent upon returning the way she had come.
Bruce gazed after the red airship as long as she was in sight; and he did not hide from those around him the pain he felt as she gradually faded away into the distance.
"If Maurice is looking and sees us turn tail, as it were—and perhaps he is looking—what will his feelings be, I wonder?" he muttered dismally.
"I hope he will have enough faith in his friends to know that we are not going to desert him, whatever we may appear to do," Mentlah promptly answered. "I declared solemnly to him that I would be true to my promise."
"Yes, but you forget that yonder people think you dead," Bruce reminded him. "So Maurice by now must think so too."
"H'm! Yes! That is true," Mentlah admitted. "Still, he will feel sure that whatever appearances may suggest, the Prince and you would not be likely to leave him to his fate."
"If we could only send him a message to let him know that we are planning to rescue him I would not mind so much," Bruce sighed.
"That I shall be able to do, once I am back home," Mentlah explained. "I have friends who will find out where he is confined, and carry him the message wherever they may put him."
This cheered Bruce greatly.
"And now," said Prince Milona, "that being settled, let us use the time before us in trying to pick up our friends."
This was not accomplished till near nightfall. Then the "Pilot" was sighted; and soon afterwards the "Krastah." A conference with Kumelda followed. He tried his utmost to dissuade Milona from undertaking the proposed adventure, but found it impossible to induce him to alter his mind, so in the end he sent the "Pilot" back to carry the news to King Amando, while he himself remained in the neighbourhood in the "Krastah" in case he might be able to render any assistance.
When night fell the friends parted once more, and the yacht went off into the darkness under the guidance of Mentlah. By the time a moon had risen she had reached the place he had spoken of, where they could dimly make out a broad, winding river, which seemed to come from some hills on the right, and wind away across the plain towards another chain of hills in front.
Here also they met with further confirmation of what Mentlah had told them, for the machinery began to work badly, and the yacht lurched and pitched much as she had just before the fight with the great eagles. Prince Milona headed her for the river, and managed to place her safely afloat on it. Then she drifted for a while slowly till the sweeps were in place and got to work, after which she was under control.
And thus they made their way in the dim moonlight until a headland came in sight, where, upon a bluff, was seen, against the skyline, the outlines of a large building, which appeared to Bruce not unlike some fine old Norman castle.
It was placed in such a position as to command the river, and looked like a silent sentinel watching all who might come and go, and ready, if needs were, to bar their passage.
And this was, in effect, exactly what happened; for suddenly a hoarse challenge rang out, and lights began to appear upon the battlements.
Mentlah gave a peculiar signal in response, whereupon there were heard cries of welcome. Evidently they knew who he was, though they could not yet see him.
A small boat put off and came alongside. Mentlah held a brief talk in low tones with the man in charge, and the craft went back. There were whistles and hoarse words of command, and then other boats put off, which promptly took the airship in tow, and guided her through an immense gateway which opened to receive her. Into this she glided, and then was made fast to a stone quay, in what was in reality a spacious covered dock. The great gates clanged to behind her, and shut her completely in.
The quay was brilliantly lighted, and there were many persons standing waiting to receive them—servants, retainers, and men in soldierly attire.
Passing through these, Mentlah led Prince Milona and his principal friends up some broad flights of stairs and along sundry galleries, all well lighted and handsomely furnished, and finally ushered them into a small hall or reception chamber. Here stood a man of fine figure and noble presence, who was waiting to welcome them alone, no doubt in accordance with some message which Mentlah had sent in advance by one of the boatmen.
He greeted the young man with many signs of deep emotion.
"They sent me word that you were dead," Bruce heard him say. "A message to that effect reached me only two hours since; and we have all been mourning for you as lost to us for ever."
Mentlah briefly explained what had happened, and introduced the strangers to "the Lord Molkris," as he called him. The latter, on his side, welcomed them with easy dignity and old-fashioned courtesy.
He was an elderly man, with iron-grey hair and beard, a tanned complexion, which had something of sternness in its expression, and bright, piercing eyes.
"Prince," said he, after some preliminary explanations on both sides, "I have already said that you are welcome to make my poor abode your home for as long as it pleases you. It would not, however, be acting wisely to let it become known to others who you are, for though I am convinced that I can rely absolutely upon all my retainers and servants, yet a secret which is shared by too many is no longer a secret. I approve Mentlah's caution in this respect, and add to it the suggestion that we treat you not as your rank calls for, but as merely a party of travellers who have accidentally encountered my ward, rendered him a service, and been brought here by him to stay for a while as our guests."
In this Prince Milona willingly acquiesced; and then there followed some confidential talk between hosts and guests.
"Yumonto and his party, in the red airship, passed down the river about midday," Molkris presently told them. "I was away at the time, so did not see them, but was told of it when I returned. I thought it very strange then that I heard nothing of Mentlah. It seemed still stranger when a messenger came here, two hours since, with a brief message to say that he was dead, and they had returned without him. It was a terrible shook to me, and I questioned the man closely; but he either could not or would not give me any particulars. He said that he knew nothing; and that I had better see the Lord Yumonto if I wished to know more.
"From another source, however, I heard the news that Faronda's lieutenant, Yumonto, has returned in triumph, as it were. It is spread about that he brings with him something or other which the King Zandalla greatly desired, and which is all that is required to put the finishing touch to the great airship he has built, which is to challenge and destroy the celebrated 'Ramaylia,' of which we have all heard, though I do not myself know much of these things, for I am no scientist. Also it is stated that Yumonto has captured some prisoner, supposed to be an inhabitant of another planet, and declared to have been brought back by King Amando from an extraordinary journey he has made through the skies, of which some vague reports had previously reached me. To- night there is to be a great fête to celebrate Yumonto's successful trip, and to exhibit to the people this stranger from another world."
At this Bruce could no longer restrain his growing anger.
"The scoundrels!" he burst out. "My friend Maurice, then, is not only a captive among these people, but is to be exhibited—made a show of—as though he were an unknown kind of ape, or some curious new animal."
"I shall go to that fête!" said Mentlah, with decision. "If what you say is correct, sir, it will give me the chance to give their prisoner a message. I can go in some disguise."
"Then I shall go, too," cried Bruce. "If it is possible for you to go disguised, it is possible for me also!"
At this moment there came a knock at the door, and Molkris, with a gesture of impatience, went himself to inquire the reason of his being disturbed while entertaining his guests. He was absent only a minute; but when he returned his face showed that he brought grave news.
"Goronto is here," he said to Mentlah, "and demands an audience at once. He has a large following of his men with him; and I fear there is some mischief afoot!"
Then addressing his guests, he continued:
"My friends, I must hide you for the present, while I ascertain what this man (who is our ruler's chief officer) wants with me tonight. I do not understand this peremptory manner of his. Have no fear for yourselves, however. As my ward's preservers, and my guests, your persons are sacred. My castle is strong, and if the need should arise, I and my people will fight to the last rather than that you should come to any harm!"
IN accordance with what their host had said as to the necessity for concealing the presence of strangers in the castle, Prince Milona and his companions were conducted by Mentlah into another part of the building.
"These," he said, as he ushered them into a handsomely appointed suite of rooms, "are my private apartments. They are situated in a wing completely shut off from the rest of the place. I don't know how long the interview with Goronto is likely to last, but my servants shall bring you some refreshments."
The travellers were by no means averse to this suggestion, for in the strain and excitement of the preceding hours they had had very little time to think about eating or drinking. Servants soon appeared bearing fruits and foaming drinks, which they placed on the tables and then withdrew.
"They are my own particular attendants," observed Mentlah, referring to them as they quitted the chamber. "They have tended me ever since I was a child. They are devoted to me, and there is not one that I would not trust with my life. And that is as well," he added bitterly, and with a grim little smile, "seeing that I am in hiding now as well as you. A nice thing when one has to hide one's self in one's own country and one's own home."
"But what, then, will be the end of it?" Milona asked. "You cannot live here always in concealment. What are your ideas as to the future? Supposing now that we should succeed in the objects we had in coming here, and get safely away—would you come with us to our country and live there?"
Mentlah hesitated for a moment or two, then he answered slowly, as though he were considering every word:
"I would go away with you—yes. But as to remaining with you— well, that would depend upon the result of my interview with King Amando. I have said that I have something to ask of him when the time comes. Upon his answer to my request my whole future life will probably depend."
"Aye, aye; I remember," returned Milona. "Well, I have promised not to ask you more than you wish to tell."
"If I do not speak more fully, Prince," Mentlah said, "I beg you will not think it is because I do not wish to give you my confidence, but because I have that to say to your royal father which must be said in the first place to him, and to him alone. Afterwards it will be for him to decide."
"It is all very mysterious," Milona commented, "but it shall be as you wish."
"What I would rather know," Bruce put in, "is what are our chances of getting away at all? It seems a little soon to be discussing what we are to do afterwards. I want to get my friend Maurice out of the hands of these people who have kidnapped him, and to have him safe with us again. And that is a task which seems to me to be growing more and more difficult—I had almost said more hopeless. Already it would seem our presence here is suspected. I suppose that this Goronto business concerns us? We were seen coming here, probably. The Prince's, airship would, of course, attract attention. Was it not a mistake for us to come so openly?"
"N—no; it was pretty dark, and there are scarcely any inhabitants hereabouts other than our own people. This castle is the first dwelling you come to; and there is not another for a long way. And as to airships—well, although, as I have said, the people of the land have none, yet since Faronda and Zandalla struck up an alliance. Faronda's airships have been frequently coming and going with messages, and so forth. They cannot reach the city except by floating down the river as we did. The river runs right through the city, and when they have finished their business and wish to leave, they float onwards with the stream out into the wilderness the other side, till they get beyond the reach of the magnetic attraction, and can mount in the air once more. Thus the inhabitants, especially those who live near the river, are becoming accustomed to certain strange craft floating down with the stream, though I doubt whether many of them know that they are really airships. They never see them in the air. Very likely most of our people believe them to be some new kind of clumsy, ungainly river craft, which Zandalla has built for purposes of his own. They certainly would not be able to distinguish between the Prince's yacht and one of Faronda's, especially at night."
Bruce nodded his head. "I see; of course that explains. What, then, brings this man Goronto here? And why did the Lord Molkris talk of his castle being strong if it came to fighting?"
"Here he is," said Mentlah, as the door opened, and Molkris entered. "We shall now soon know all that there is to know."
The lord of the castle came in with a clouded brow, and looking very thoughtful. Closing the door carefully behind him, he addressed himself first to Mentlah:
"Our benevolent ruler," he began in sarcastic tones, "has been graciously pleased to send his chief officer here to express his sympathy with me in the bereavement which he supposes has befallen me. At the same time he hopes I shall not give way too much to my natural grief. And in order to prevent my mind from dwelling unduly upon my loss he begs me to honour with my presence the great assembly of nobles and citizens which takes place tonight. With his chief officer he has sent a guard of honour to escort me to the palace."
"It is a trap!" Mentlah declared hotly. "You will not go, sir? He thinks he has got rid of me, and now he means to get rid of you! If you go you will be seized and made prisoner."
"I have no doubt that that is the intention," returned Molkris coolly. "Nevertheless I thought it better not to refuse. I declined the guard of honour, however, and said I would come later, not alone, but with my servants and dependents. I pointed out that it would be unkind to deprive them of the pleasure of attending this grand function."
Mentlah chuckled. "Meaning that you would bring your own guard, sir?"
"Still, if he means mischief, they would soon be overpowered."
"Not so easily as he may think," said Molkris at once. "It is time now I should explain that events have moved fast while you have been away. We have foreseen and provided for an emergency of this kind, and have agreed upon a common plan of action. Our party will be sure to muster in full force, and if King Zandalla lays a hand upon one he will have to deal with all of us. Something like civil war will break out to-night if he goes too far."
"In that case let us both go, by all means," exclaimed Mentlah eagerly. "We are bound to be there to support our friends. But what about these, our guests?"
Molkris nodded his head, and, raising his voice, addressed Prince Milona.
"Prince," he began, "you and your friends have heard what has been said. I have purposely spoken out openly before you so that you should see for yourselves that we give you our entire confidence. You now understand why it is that I feel bound to attend this assembly at the Palace tonight. I am sorry to have to beg your permission to leave you for a few hours; but I again give you my assurance that here you will be quite safe. I shall leave behind a sufficient guard to secure your safety—"
"Nay, nay, Lord Molkris; we shall of course accompany you," said Milona promptly. "Whatever the adventure may be, I and my friends desire to share it with you. Say, is it not so, friends?" he asked, turning to his companions.
An emphatic and unanimous shout of approval was the answer.
"You hear, my lord? You cannot refuse us your permission!"
"H'm! But how is it to be managed, Prince?" asked Molkris, dubiously. "Strangers are never welcomed here—save, indeed, Faronda and his people, and that only recently. It would be madness for you—"
"Our friend Mentlah said a little while since that he meant to go disguised," Bruce pointed out; "and I then asked him to let me do the same."
"I think we might arrange it," said Mentlah. "On these special occasions there are always a lot of maskers and people in fancy dress. All kinds of fantastic costumes are allowed, as you know, sir."
"H'm! Perhaps something of the kind might be managed," muttered Molkris, still doubtfully. "But the risk of discovery would be great."
"That we are willing to take upon ourselves," Milona declared.
"And there is another thing," Molkris continued. "I was about to point out to you, Prince, that as you cannot go with me as my guests, or friends, there is only one way in which it would be possible—a way that I scarcely dare, and I certainly do not like, to suggest."
"I see your meaning, Lord Molkris," Milona rejoined smilingly. "You mean that we must pose as your retainers?"
"Er—yes; that is what it comes to. I have already said that I shall take a strong band of my people with me, and I am afraid—"
"Say no more, sir," Milona replied. "A guest of my royal father is now a prisoner in the hands of this gentleman whom you call Zandalla, and it is a matter of honour with me to do everything in my power to rescue him. In such case it does not become me or my friends to stand upon ceremony. Disguise me in any way you think best—as one of your retainers, one of your attendants, one of your lackeys, if it so please you. You have made me your confidant, and I give you my trust in return. I know that I speak the wishes of my companions as well as my own."
"I thank you, Prince, for your assurance. Then I will say no more. You shall have your way, and come with us in some disguise which we will presently settle upon. But let me repeat what I have said before, that if trouble should arise my followers will fight for you and defend you to the last man."
And so the compact was settled, and Molkris went out to call his people together, leaving the Prince and his followers to discuss with Mentlah the question of the disguises they should wear.
That cool-headed, astute young gentleman explained the state of the case very concisely. There were, it seemed, many kinds of disguises open to them. Some people wore merely masks combined with any kind of ordinary dress—so ordinary that, combined with the mask, there was nothing to betray or indicate the wearer. Others favoured what we should call "fancy" dress, and arranged themselves in costumes strictly belonging to some other class or period. Others there were, again, who put on the outward semblance of any kind of creature—beast, bird, fish, or reptile— which happened to appeal to their fancy.
In this last class Bruce found a very large field of choice indeed open to him—one in which he became interested at once, despite the state of preoccupation and trouble he was in concerning his chum. It has to be remembered that though upon the planet Mars he had found a world very much like our own, and many familiar types among the lower creatures, yet there were everywhere variations of these types. There were among the Martians, for instance, cattle; yet, though they were undoubtedly "cattle," they were different from our cattle. The same remark applied to their sheep, to their pigs, and so on all round.
To naturalists and scientists the almost endless variety of species and types which exists upon our own globe is wonderful enough; but Bruce found more wonderful things still upon Mars. Not more wonderful in themselves, perhaps, but more marvellous because of their likeness and yet unlikeness to things upon Earth.
Mentlah brought out a stock of queer, bizarre costumes, such as would have made the fortune of any designer of dresses for one of our pantomimes. From these strange disguises Bruce had to make his choice, and he did not find the task an easy one.
To Milona and his friends and followers, however, the question of choice was a matter of less difficulty. They were accustomed to similar functions in their own country, and, knowing all the dresses usual on such occasions, were only interested in noting those which offered some points of novelty.
After a while the selections were duly made, and, by the time this had been done, Molkris returned, bringing with him some friends and the chief officers of his establishment. These he made known to his guests, and then the whole party trooped out into the galleries and descended the stairs.
WHEN the strangers reached again the covered dock in which they had left the Prince's airship, they were not a little surprised to find that there was no trace of it to be seen. It had been somehow hidden away, and in its place was a large craft like a magnificently-appointed State barge, beautifully decorated and illuminated.
It had three decks, and in the lower one were banks of rowers with long sweeps, reminding Bruce of the pictures he had seen of the galleys and State barges in use in the time of the Romans.
There were three short masts, the principal use of which appeared to be to support the long strings of lighted lamps which depended from them, crossing and recrossing one another like the rigging of a ship. From the mast heads streamed out flags and banners glistening with devices in gold and silver. The largest one in the centre was a great eagle with outstretched wings, that being the particular armorial device, it presently appeared, of the Lord Molkris. Another banner bore the word "Myraynia," the name of the barge.
Truly it was a motley crowd which filed across the gangway and streamed on to the upper deck. Besides ordinary maskers, there were numbers of persons dressed up to represent, as nearly as might be possible, such creatures as lizards, seals, birds of all kinds, monkeys, and apes, with many queer forms which it would be difficult for us to classify.
In the middle of all these, upon a raised daïs, stood Molkris, almost the only one on board attired in ordinary garb. He wore the rich dress of a noble of the country—a tunic and belt, with a cloak hanging from the shoulders, bearing some resemblance, Bruce thought, to the costume of a Knight Templar of olden days.
As to Bruce himself, he had acted upon Mentlah's suggestion, and adopted a grotesque "makeup," something like a seal. Mentlah had asked him if he could swim well, and, upon Bruce answering "like a fish," had said laughingly: "Then dress yourself like one—or, rather, like a seal—and we will join the swimmers in the fiery cascades." But when Bruce had asked for an explanation of this puzzling saying, Mentlah had merely laughed, and said: "You will see for yourself; all in good time." Then Milona and his two friends Tralona and Myontis had agreed to adopt the same dress. Finally, even Mike donned the suit, the mention of swimming rousing his interest at once, for he had been known, it seemed, in his time as a clever and daring diver.
Oleron, who confessed that he always felt more at home in the air than in the water, had contented himself with something less out of the common. He was attired merely as one of Molkris's retainers, in a semi-military dress. It was exactly similar to that worn by Dyonda, Molkris's major-domo; and, as they were about the same figure and both wore masks, only those in the secret could tell them apart.
The gates were opened, and the barge floated into the stream and started on its way to the distant city.
At first there was little enough to be seen. A pale moonlight fell upon the water and the banks of the river, lighting up the scene just sufficiently to show that, as Mentlah had said, there were few dwellings thereabouts.
Then a rocky bluff loomed into sight. It was crowned by another castle, somewhat after the style of the one they had just left, but varied as to design.
"That," observed Mentlah to his "brother seals," as he called his companions, "belongs to the Lord Almenda, one of our party. You can see that they are preparing to start on the same errand as ourselves. Probably they are waiting for us, and I expect we shall keep together—for mutual support in case of trouble, you know."
This forecast proved to be correct. Up and down zig-zag paths strings of figures bearing torches or other lights were seen, most of them making their way to a landing-place at the foot of the headland, where lay another barge, illuminated very much after the manner of the one they were on. Instead of continuing on its way, the "Myraynia" drifted alongside the waiting vessel, which bore on its principal banner the representation of a bull. On another flag was the name given to the craft herself, the "Tyraynia."
As soon as the "Myraynia" had been temporarily secured alongside the other, some people came on board to speak to Molkris. Their leader—"the Lord Almenda," as Mentlah informed his companions— was a stout, heavy-looking man with an immense head, somewhat pompous in manner, but withal dignified in bearing. Bruce could not help thinking that in figure and general manner he bore some resemblance to the animal emblazoned on his banner. He conferred for a while with Molkris, then returned to his own barge, and the two vessels cast off and started down the river together, keeping abreast of each other.
One or two more headlands were passed, each surmounted by fine- looking buildings, but no further halt was made; and then, on rounding a bend in the river, the travellers came in view of an animated and surprising scene.
Before them lay the river, now becoming broader and stretching away in an almost straight line towards a gap in a chain of rocky hills which crossed it at right angles. Upon each side of the stream habitations could be seen, some lighted up, others made manifest by a peculiar glow—a sort of reflected light, which seemed to come from nowhere in particular, but rather to pervade the atmosphere generally.
But it was the river itself which attracted attention. Its broad, placid bosom was glowing as though from the reflection of a sunset above. Upon its surface were hundreds of boats and floating craft of all sizes, all shapes, and all kinds of build, every one brilliantly illuminated, all making their way towards the distant city, of which a glimpse could be seen through the gap in the rocky barrier.
From these floating craft proceeded the sounds of music, of song, of laughter, and gaiety. There was a slight breeze, scarcely more than sufficient to wave the flags and banners, and it brought the sounds in a confused, murmuring hum which fell pleasantly upon the ear.
Soon the two barges, propelled by their banks of rowers, were in the midst of the slower-moving craft, which made way for them and closed in in their wake. And thus they passed on through the gap—a rugged, wild-looking gorge, where the stream narrowed again— to the further side, where a scene burst upon their view which surpassed everything that the astonished travellers had anticipated.
The river began once more to widen, finally spreading out into a great lake, a magnificent sheet of water glowing like molten gold. Its surface was dotted with sailing craft of most exquisite shapes, gliding placidly to and fro amid an enormous concourse of slower and smaller vessels. Upon the shores lines of magnificent buildings extended, terrace upon terrace, upwards towards the surrounding rocky heights, which everywhere shut the place in as within a great ring.
For the first time the travellers realised the true meaning of the expression they had heard, "fiery cascades." From the heights fell what looked like streams of fire, glowing, iridescent, sending out showers of fiery spray which floated slowly away like luminous clouds. These falls and torrents of liquid fire, as they seemed to be, formed themselves, at lower levels, into glowing streams which emptied themselves into the lake. As a consequence, the whole landscape was lighted up as though by a great fire, and the myriads of little lights upon the vessels afloat and the buildings ashore appeared almost pale by comparison.
Conspicuous amid all the other buildings by its size and beauty of outline was one great pile which Mentlah informed his guests was Zandalla's palace. Truly a fairy palace did it appear, rising tier upon tier with its terraced gardens and fiery fountains, which could be plainly made out as the voyagers drew near, the whole reflected in the glowing waters of the lake.
Everywhere was heard the sound of music, of gaiety, of revels, and the peculiar low roar which arises from a city en fête.
The two barges now became part of a procession, and fell into line behind others, all making their way to the palace. They slowly entered from the lake, between immense gateways, and then drew up beside landing-steps within the palace gardens.
"Here," said Mentlah, "we are expected to go ashore and pay our respects to the ruler of the land; after which, if we are allowed to follow the usual custom, we can join in any of the sports or revels which may take your fancy."
The two barges drew up beside the landing-place, and the two dignitaries walked together, side by side, up the steps, those with them forming into lines behind them. Molkris strode forward with a sombre, preoccupied air; yet it would have been apparent to a close observer that his keen glance took note of everything around him. Almenda marched on beside him with a heavy tread and a ponderous swagger, raising his massive head now and again with a slight shake, and holding it high, almost as in a kind of challenge.
After passing through several wide galleries, ascending broad staircases, and traversing some open courts, the party came to a great hall, already half-filled with guests. Here seated on a throne placed upon a raised daïs, sat Zandalla.
The two nobles went forward and made a somewhat stiff obeisance, while their followers formed compact groups a little distance away. Zandalla greeted the two nobles with seeming cordiality, and entered into conversation with them. What was said was not audible to the others, and Bruce had time to look about him and make mental note of what was going on.
Naturally, Zandalla attracted his attention first. A rather handsome man, of advanced years—he appeared to be handsome, that is to say, at first sight; but a more careful scrutiny revealed lines and lineaments which were anything but pleasing. The face was undeniably clever-looking; but the heavy, square jaw, the beetling eyebrows, and the restless eyes, bespoke a man of iron will and uncertain disposition, while the mouth had certain lines about it which, to those experienced in such things, are sure indications of a cruel, crafty disposition.
The talk did not last very long, and then the two nobles passed on and left the apartment, presently emerging again in the gardens surrounding the palace, their followers marching after them.
"It's all safe for the moment. The critical time has not come yet," Mentlah whispered to his friends. "The members of our party have truly turned up in force to-night, and at present they are the more numerous. What may happen by and by is another matter. For the time, however, we are free to do as we like, and I will show you some of the amusements; and at the same time we can make inquiry as to the whereabouts of your captive friend."
IT was certainly a wondrous scene—or, rather, a series of wondrous scenes—in which the travellers now mingled under the guidance of Mentlah. He took his "brother seals," as he called them, specially into his charge, and the little party wandered away from Molkris and his friends and attendants and mixed freely with the revellers, and joined in their amusements.
"It is better that we should do so," Mentlah whispered. "If we are seen to hold aloof it will draw attention and create suspicion. Zandalla's spies are everywhere about, and not to do as others do would merely make us conspicuous. So, my friends, throw yourselves, for a while at least, heartily into the spirit of the thing. Leave it to me to keep a sharp look-out for a chance to communicate with your friend, and for possible danger to ourselves. If Zandalla has his spies, so have we. Many of the people round, who seem bent only on enjoying themselves, are members of our party. They know me, and know by this time that I am here and I know them; and if danger threatens they will warn me, and if the danger becomes urgent will rally round us. So take your fill, or seem to do so, of the gaiety of the evening. That is the only way to avoid arousing suspicion."
The exact position being thus explained, his companions accepted his advice, and proceeded to act upon it. To Bruce, in particular, the adventure appealed as being totally different to anything he had yet met with since his arrival on Mars.
Here were no airships, no queer habitations built like dovecotes on pillars. The conditions were nearer to those which obtain on our Earth—or, rather, they would have been had the flowing streams and cascades been like ordinary water. Here, however, they were, or appeared to be, streams and falls of fire, and the effect upon the landscape as a whole it is almost impossible to describe. It may, perhaps, be imagined by the reader, but no written description can do it adequate justice. The glow was over everything, pervaded everything. It was everywhere. It seemed to have the same quality as what we call daylight—that is to say, the power to travel round objects, so to speak, in such a way as to cast no black shadows. Like a golden sunset on our globe, it threw its warm glow on all sides alike, and was reflected to and fro from the different objects on which it fell in a manner that was amazingly beautiful.
Turning to other features of the scene, the next thing that riveted the attention of the strangers was the extraordinary costumes of the maskers. In their queer masks they made up a weird spectacle indeed, and one not easily to be forgotten; so fantastic as to appear rather like a nightmare phantasmagoria than actual life. One thing, however, was above all things evident, and that was that these people had come here to enjoy themselves. And enjoy themselves they certainly did. Very odd was it to see the way in which this strange crowd of two-legged figures, with the heads of animals, birds, fishes, and reptiles, threw themselves into all kinds of queer amusements.
Yet there were "skeletons at the feast." Here and there were seen the sinister forms of the "men-bats," with whose appearance the travellers had already become unpleasantly familiar. They seemed to be the only ones in the land who could fly in the air—or, at least, who cared to do so. But they, at any rate, were very much in evidence.
They not only thrust themselves in among the holiday-makers upon the ground, but they floated over their heads in their clumsy manner of flying, watching from above all that went on below them. They even, Bruce noticed, flew about close to the windows of the upper stories of the palace and other dwellings, peering in everywhere, and carrying on a system of espionage such as, Bruce thought, must be intolerable to the populace. These uncouth beings reminded him of the black-robed and hooded or masked "familiars" of the Spanish Inquisition. They must even be, it seemed to him, more hateful to the citizens who had to endure their attentions, since the myrmidons of the Inquisition at any rate could not float about over people's heads and stare into the windows of their upper floors.
But Mentlah left his guests little time or opportunity to speculate upon these matters. He had advised them to "enjoy" themselves, and he was determined that they should carry out his advice, or at least appear to do so.
He led them first to a place where a glowing waterfall, which looked like a cascade of living fire, fell from some rocks above. This he called by a name which may be interpreted by our word "water-chute," though it would rather seem that the true name should have been "fire-chute." Yet, as they drew near, they saw, to their amazement, that numbers of people were disporting themselves in the liquid fire, as it appeared to be. They were enjoying the amusement of being carried down the fall, the operation being accompanied by shrieks and yells of delight, laughter, wonder, admiration—just such as one may hear uttered by travellers on our switchback railway.
"Oh! You must come and join in this!" Mentlah urged, when he perceived that his companions hung back and looked dubious. "It is one of our most celebrated sports. All you require by way of preparation is to be able to swim and dive well."
"But," Bruce objected, "how can you swim unharmed in that fiery liquid?"
At this Mentlah laughed heartily. "It is no more fiery than ordinary water," he declared. "It is merely a peculiar quality of the water which flows from these magnetic rocks!"
Bruce asked further questions, but the answers did not explain the marvel to his entire satisfaction. The best explanation that Mentlah could give left it in doubt whether the water was merely highly phosphorescent—a phenomenon frequently seen in the sea upon our own globe—or whether the luminous effect was produced by the water becoming highly magnetised.
"Well, never mind what the cause is," laughed Mentlah, at the end of a little argument about it; "come and try it, my brother seals! We are all wearing just the most appropriate dress for the purpose. In fact, I had this in my mind when I suggested a seal- like costume."
He led them to a place where they found a sort of travelling ladder, always in motion, by means of which they were carried to the top of the fall without any exertion upon their own part. This contrivance was worked automatically by the power of the waterfall itself, and was, Mentlah informed them, always at work, day and night, whether anyone was there to make use of it or not.
Arrived at the top, Mentlah led the way to the bank of the stream above the fall, where they found numbers of people congregated, some leaping off spring boards, as do divers with us, while others preferred to have some floating contrivance to cling to. These were fashioned in all sorts of fantastic shapes, ranging from a mere plain barrel to figures resembling swans and other water-fowl, seals, lizards, and even some grotesque creations of uncouth monsters.
Of the crowd gathered around, many were merely spectators, who watched the swimmers and often pitted them to race one against another down the falls for wagers.
In order to reassure his friends and give them some idea of what was required, Mentlah slipped off down a sloping part of the bank in very seal-like fashion, coming up afterwards and tumbling and rolling about in the water in clever imitation of the evolutions of a seal in its favourite element. Finally, he set off for the fall, was carried down by it, and, after an interval, reappeared, smiling, and unharmed, beside his friends, having returned by the travelling ladder.
Next, he and Bruce dived together, and he piloted the latter over the fall; and when the two reached the top again the others joined them, and found the sport so much to their liking that they repeated the feat over and over again. They found, as Mentlah had said to be the case, that there was no great heat in the fiery-looking liquid, only an agreeable warmth. But the beautiful flashes given off as they splashed about added greatly to the effect.
Suddenly there was a simultaneous movement of the crowd in one direction. All the swimmers left the stream and walked off with the rest, and Mentlah whispered to his companions that they had better go with them.
"I don't yet know what they are moving off for," he told Bruce, "but I have an idea, from a few words I heard one man say to another just now, that it has something to do with your friend."
They marched along with the crowd, and so back through the gardens, and entered with the rest a great hall in the palace. In the midst of it there was a stage, raised some four feet or so from the ground. And here, standing between guards, evidently regarded by the gaping populace as a sort of "raree show," Bruce at last came face to face with—Maurice!
BRUCE, could not repress a start as he saw Maurice standing there before him. Then he looked away in another direction lest his friend might be startled too, and so they might betray themselves. He had forgotten that his disguise rendered recognition practically out of the question. At the same moment a significant nudge from Mentlah warned him to keep his feelings under control.
When he turned his gaze again on Maurice he tried his best to simulate mere idle curiosity, as the rest of the crowd here were doing.
He saw that his chum was pale and anxious, and felt particularly pained at the vacant, hopeless look in his eyes as they travelled over the sea of faces around him. There he stood, a prisoner in a strange land, amid a strange nation, entirely cut off, as it must have seemed, from friends and from all hope of succour.
He doubtless knew (Bruce thought to himself) by this time that no airship could follow him. There was no hope for him, therefore, in that direction. He had not the solace of thinking that, perhaps, at any moment there might descend from the air above a squadron of airships, led by King Amando or Milona, coming to his rescue.
Behind him, seated upon two large curiously-carved roomy chairs or thrones, sat Zandalla and another whom Mentlah declared in a whisper was Faronda himself. Bruce had, however, recognised him. He had not forgotten how, on the first night of their arrival on Mars, Milona had assisted their escape from the opposing fleet of airships by dressing up Mike to represent the leader of their enemies.
But though the figures of the two were similar, there was a great deal of difference between the genial, good-tempered Mike and the stern, hard-visaged Martian. Evidently far younger than Zandalla, he had a face in which determination and an iron will were even more strongly written, combined with that cold, steely expression of eye which tells of a cruel, relentless nature.
He sat now silent and impassive, save that his keen, shrewd eyes glanced slowly from one to another of those present, as though seeking to read every face, or pierce the disguise of each mask in turn. They made a good pair, these two leaders, and Bruce felt his heart sink at the thought that his chum was in the power of two such beings.
It was a sore trial to him to have to remain inactive. There, before him, but a few yards away, stood Maurice, whom they had come so far to seek; and yet he could do nothing to aid him. He could not even speak to him or make his presence known.
Faronda was attended by a suite of his own followers, among whom the one known as Yumonto, a stout, heavily-built, bearded man, was conspicuous. Zandalla, on his side, was attended by Goronto, whose name Bruce had heard so often of late. He was a man of lighter build, with clean-shaven face and sharp, keen eyes, with more of intelligence in their expression than in the coarse features of Faronda's lieutenant.
Mentlah, in muttered undertones, indicated these men to Bruce, at the same time urging him again to keep his feelings under control.
"Take care!" he murmured. "I fear we are being watched! If I should go out, follow me at once. Pass the word to the others."
Mentlah's warning came none too soon, for all sorts of wild ideas had been surging through Bruce's brain. So intolerable did it seem to him to stand there quietly and look on at his friend in such a position that he had been almost on the point of doing something foolish.
Suddenly the buzz of talk and comment was hushed as Zandalla rose, and, stepping forward a few paces, set himself to address the assembly.
"He had," he said, "very important and weighty news to communicate to them. They were approaching a crisis in the history of their country; indeed he might add in the history of their world. Years ago their soothsayers had predicted that their nation would one day become a ruling race upon the globe on which they lived. He, on his side, had told them that he believed such a time was approaching, and he was now able to say positively that it was close at hand. Since his friend King Faronda had become their ally events had marched rapidly, and they were on the threshold of a great triumph.
"You are aware," he went on, "that King Faronda has been for some time engaged in a struggle for supremacy with King Amando, in which, up to the present, neither side can be said to have gained any decided advantage. Amando has too long dominated his own part of our world. For many years he has gone on conquering neighbouring countries with such success that he became satiated with the glory of the thing, and sighed for some greater adventure. His success had been almost entirely due to his invention of his great airship, the 'Ramaylia,' of which we have all heard rumours, though, happily for all of us, few of us have ever seen her. Thanks to our impassible barriers, Amando has never brought us under his yoke, as he has so many other countries. But most of you have heard about him, and have been told how that, at last tired of conquest here, he had been ambitious enough to plan a visit in the 'Ramaylia' into space; and that he had actually been bold enough—foolhardy enough, as other people thought—to start off on that wild adventure.
"No one probably ever expected to see him return. To most sane people who heard of his crazy idea it seemed certain that he and all those with him had gone to a certain and terrible death. This being so, and there being no one to take his place—for he had taken even his son with him—our friend Faronda naturally looked upon it as a favourable opportunity to assert his own claims. In this enterprise he had met with such success that he had almost gained his object, when suddenly, to the astonishment of the whole world, Amando returned.
"For some time previously rumours had got about that he was returning. It was reported that he had actually travelled beyond the confines of our world into limitless space, yet had been all the time in wireless communication with the council to whom he had given over his authority during his absence. But I need not say that this preposterous tale was disbelieved by all reasonable people. No one outside the circle of flatterers and time-servers by which he is surrounded believes such an outrageous tale. We know the thing to be physically, scientifically impossible. It is an insult to our intelligence—to your intelligence, my friends— to expect belief in such a fantastic story! You do not believe it; I do not believe it. No sane person treats it seriously!
"But you will ask what object, then, could there be in allowing such rumours to get about? Is it that Amando—this monarch who has imposed his will upon so large a portion of the inhabitants of our globe—is it that he is, in very truth, crazy? Our answer to that is that we believe that explanation to be the real one! This man, who has won so many triumphs in the past, has lost his reason! Either that, or he is trying to impose upon our whole world a gigantic falsehood, in order to make himself out a more wonderful being than he really is or ever was. Why, if he had really accomplished this tremendous feat, we—the whole of the population of our planet—should at once regard him as a demi- god! He would have no equal, no rival—no man would dare to oppose him! The glory of such an achievement would have resounded, long before this, throughout all the nations, and he would have been acclaimed by their united voices as the greatest man of this or any other age. As I have said, he would be regarded as a demi-god.
"What we want to know, most of us, then, is whether this would-be god among us is a most audacious impostor or whether he is merely mad. If you wish any proof of the falsehood of his tale, beyond its obvious impossibility, you have it in the fact that he has brought back with him absolutely no proofs whatever. If he had, indeed, landed on another planet, and found it inhabited, he would certainly have returned with all kinds of wonderful things to show us! It would have been easy to do this, and therefore easy to give us proofs.
"It seems, however, there is nothing of the kind. The only suggestion of that nature is the absurd statement that he has brought with him two or three of the inhabitants of that wonderful planet—and there before you stands one of them, who has been captured and brought to me by an expedition I sent out. You can see for yourselves that this youth is no wondrous being from another world, but just an ordinary mortal such as we are ourselves.
"No! The real reason for this extraordinary proceeding is either that King Amando is mad, or that he has come to know what we have been doing here. He may have learned that we have built a great airship equal to his own, one that will be able to meet his masterpiece, the 'Ramaylia,' and challenge the supremacy which her possession has hitherto given him. If so, what more likely, to his mad brain, than the idea of planning something which should still make him appear the most wonderful man of our time? It would be easy for him to disappear and hide himself with his airship for a year or so, and then come back and say that he has performed this or that wonderful feat while he has been away!
"This, my friends, is what has happened! Amando has been absent— that we all know. Where he has been we do not know. But he certainly has not been so far afield as he pretends. He has never left our planet! He has not a particle of real scientific proof to show that he has ever left it!
"He himself, as I have pointed out, only presents us with two or three strangers, and says: 'They are inhabitants of Lokris.' Why, that in itself is a mad, crazy idea, and perhaps goes to show more than anything else that there is now more of the lunatic than the impostor about him.
"But fate, my friends, has given into my hands the key to the mystery—if we can call so childish a scheme a mystery. This young man who stands before you is one of those whom this mad adventurer claims to have brought back with him from a distant world! Who he is or where he comes from I do not yet know, but I intend to know. I intend to make him confess who and what he is, and the part of our world Amando brought him from. He must have been bribed, no doubt, in some way to pretend that he was born on another planet, but we shall find means to make him admit the truth.
"And when we have done that, this bubble will have been effectually pricked! Amando's crazy claim to be considered a kind of demi-god will be once for all exposed for what it is! Henceforth he will stand before all men as a would-be impostor; he will be so discredited that very few, even of his own people, will care to stand up for him. Then my friend and ally, Faronda, and myself, intend to enter into possession of his inheritance.
"As you yourselves will perceive from this explanation, it is scarcely likely that there will be much fighting to be done, after all; for who will care to fight under such a leader as Amando will then appear? Who would risk his life on behalf of a man discredited, laughed at, despised, throughout our world, as either one of the maddest of lunatics, or the greatest of impostors of our age?
"I think I have said enough! I know that there are some amongst you who have thought that it is I who have been the crazy one in joining King Faronda, and in thinking to pit myself against Amando the mighty conqueror. But those who have been thus half- hearted or doubtful will now see their mistake. They need have no fear! We know what we are about! Our great airship, which we have named the 'Conqueror,' is nearly ready, and if it comes to a trial of strength between her and the 'Ramaylia,' we have no reason to be afraid of the result. But we do not believe there will ever be such a fight. The 'Ramaylia' is at present laid up and is useless, and her owner will be held up to the scorn, or the pity, of those who have hitherto supported him!"
This lengthy speech naturally caused a commotion amongst those who heard it. While it was being delivered there were heard on all sides exclamations, at first of astonishment, wonder, incredulity. But when it ended, the scene became almost indescribable. The whole assembly was roused to a pitch of wild and unbounded enthusiasm, and the shouts of applause became deafening.
Mentlah nudged Bruce, and they took advantage of the tumult to make their way out of the building, the rest of their party following them.
WITHOUT speaking a word, Mentlah led the way through the gardens till they came to a place where the two large barges were lying side by side.
They went on board the one belonging to Molkris, and, with a sign to the attendants in charge, descended into the spacious saloon.
Here they were soon joined by others of their friends, who came in in groups, including, at last, Molkris and Almenda themselves.
Even then for a time no word was spoken. They remained silent, while Mentlah and his guardian made one or two trips back to the deck to assure themselves that they had not been followed, and that their people were on the look-out to guard against any sudden attack.
They had all heard Zandalla's harangue, and to say that it had taken them by surprise would be a very mild way of stating the effect it had produced. They were, to use a common expression, thunderstruck. Bruce felt dazed, and scarce able, as yet, to collect his thoughts. Even the older and wiser heads gathered around him admitted, by their grave and silent demeanour, that they were nonplussed by the turn things had taken.
Zandalla had "stolen a march" upon them with a vengeance! And the craft, the cunning, the subtlety of the "coup" amazed them.
All their plans were upset, all their expectations, their carefully thought-out calculations scattered to the winds. Molkris and his friends had come there that night in the certainty that they had not only a large following, but that there were a considerable number of waverers who would very likely support them should Zandalla force an open rupture. Now, it was practically certain many of those waverers had been gained over by the other side. Not only that, but others whom they had reckoned amongst their assumed friends and sympathisers were likely to be dazzled by the tempting prospect which Zandalla had so artfully unfolded. They—Molkris and the remainder upon whom he could actually rely—would be in a hopeless minority, and their position had become critical in the extreme.
And Bruce and Milona, and their little band—what of them? All hope of such help and support from their new friends as would enable them to rescue Maurice had vanished into thin air. It was probably not too much to say that their own hopes of getting away with their lives had vanished, too! But of this last they recked little just then; their sole thoughts went out to the unfortunate captive, to Maurice, who was standing, helpless and alone, in the power of these relentless plotters.
For it was of no use to try to hide from themselves what Zandalla's scarcely-veiled threats had implied. He had pledged himself to "make their prisoner confess." He had denounced Maurice as a confederate of Amando in an impudent fraud, and had declared his belief in his ability to make him "admit the truth." That meant, plainly enough, that the hapless Maurice was to be tortured into saying what they wished him to say!
Bruce, more than any one there probably, was able to appreciate Zandalla's cleverness in turning his accidental capture of Maurice to unexpected account. Originally, no doubt, Maurice had been seized upon in mistake for Milona. Yumonto and those with him had found out their mistake, and had questioned their prisoner, and he had naturally explained exactly who and what he was. He would have every reason to hope that, as a neutral, so to speak, they would let him go free. At the worst, he would only expect that they would treat him as a prisoner of war from whom they might hope to obtain some advantage for themselves by way of ransom.
Probably Goronto had taken Maurice back with him to Zandalla with some such idea in his mind and nothing more. Then, when Zandalla had seen him, and skilfully questioned him, his replies, together with the information which Faronda had previously been able to gather, had put into Zandalla's subtle brain the idea of declaring Amando's account of his journey to our Earth to be a crazy fabrication!
After all, looked at in this light, and from the point of view which this crafty tyrant now put forward, what was there to go upon to contradict it? What evidence was there that Amando had ever actually landed upon the Earth? Owing to the mishap which had occurred when he had thus landed, his time upon Earth had been spent, at one place only, in making repairs; and the urgent "wireless" summons back to Mars had left no time to make even a hurried tour of our world. Much less had there been time or opportunity to make any zoological or scientific collection of such a nature that it could be put forward as incontestable proof of such a visit.
There was simply his (Bruce's) and Maurice's testimony, and that of Amando's people who had been with him. As to these, of course, it was open to Zandalla to say that they had all been bribed into becoming confederates in a fraud.
Bruce was in despair. He could not see any possible way out of the "impasse" into which fate had led them; or any hope of saving Maurice from a terrible fate.
"They will torture him till they make him say what they want him to, or at least, they will torture him in that hope," he groaned. "But he will never say it—which means that he will be tortured to death!"
None of the others could give him any comfort. The tyrant's remorseless nature was too well known for them to be able to offer any ground for a more hopeful view.
Mentlah was fain to confess that there was nothing to be hoped for from any relenting on the part of either Zandalla or Faronda. "But," he said, "we have spies and friends among their followers—even among their close attendants. We may yet be able to plan his escape!"
Bruce shook his head. "How do you know that those you speak of will remain faithful to you after what they have heard?" he asked. "Besides, Zandalla is not likely to leave anything to chance! He will take care to have Maurice too well guarded!"
To Molkris and his followers Maurice was, of course, only a stranger. Milona and his friends, it is true, were strangers also; but they had rescued Mentlah from death and brought him back in safety. For that reason Molkris's people had felt, to a certain extent, interested in Maurice. But now they had to think about themselves. Molkris and Almenda had their own friends and followers to consider; and they not unnaturally placed their safety before that of a single prisoner personally unknown to them. Hence, as Bruce soon perceived, he could hope for little from them.
Mentlah, however, was loyal to the promise he had given to Maurice in the first place; and he was not one to forget that he owed his life to Maurice's friends. He took Bruce and Milona on one side:
"Listen, my friends!" he said. "These others have weighty business of their own to occupy them just now—and, indeed, you must not forget that in trying to find some way of securing their own escape from the fix they are in they are planning for you as well as for themselves! But you and I can leave them to that part, and give our whole thought to aiding your friend. Now, I have a scheme in my mind—a desperate one, I confess—but—we must attempt something! Whatever the risk may prove to be I am willing to incur it! Will you follow out my suggestions and back me up?"
No need to ask such a question twice. They both declared themselves ready to do anything, to run any risk, on Maurice's behalf.
"Then," Mentlah went on, "come with me. We must try a change of costume—another disguise. A very forlorn hope, I fear, my plan may prove to be—but it is the only one I can puzzle out."
He led them to another part of the barge, where they found Dyonda, Molkris's major-domo. With him, amongst others, was Mike, who had been left in his special charge.
They had considered it too risky to take their faithful servitor with them in their excursion through the gardens; but Dyonda had taken him far enough to enable him to see something of what had been going on. Then they had returned to the barge, so that Mike had not seen Maurice, and knew nothing of the latest untoward developments. Dyonda had resumed his usual attire, and Mike had changed his mask dress for that of one of Molkris's attendants.
"Very plazed I be t' see ye safe on booard agin, Mr. Bruce," said honest Mike. "And 'ave ye seen annything of Mr. Maurice, sorr?"
Bruce could only return a general reply, and then he proceeded to give Mike a few words by way of caution:
"We are going upon another little trip, Mike," he told him. "You must not leave this craft while we are gone, on any pretext whatever. But keep a sharp look-out for us, and mind you keep your revolver handy and ready for use, in case we should have to make a hasty retreat."
"Sure, I'll do that same, Mr. Bruce, an' I onnly hopes as there won't be no need fur it! But take care, sorr, take care! We're among kittle cattle here, I'm thinking."
He shook his head with the air of one who could say a good deal more if he liked; while Mentlah spoke to Dyonda aside, and then sent him on some errand.
The surprise of Mentlah's companions was great when Dyonda returned bearing the three "bat" suits which had been captured in the caves.
"That dress!" exclaimed Bruce. "Is that to be our new disguise?"
"Yes, my friend. It is a risky thing to do, as I told you, but— well—that is just part of my plan."
"All right! I'm quite willing to trust to you!"
"You see," Mentlah explained, "you are not altogether strange to it. You managed very well when you hid in that cave to watch the red airship, at the time when you fortunately found me."
"I'm ready," Milona put in, entering into the idea with his usual zest. "This looks as though it was intended to 'beard the lion in his den,' as I've heard my friend Bruce say."
"That is just what we are going to do," Mentlah answered quietly.
"BEFORE we start upon this adventure," said Mentlah, some time later, when he had nearly completed his preparations, "it is necessary that you should learn a few signs and passwords in use amongst Zandalla's corps of 'men-bats.' I do not pretend that I know them all, and therein lies one of the chief dangers of our adventure. But I will instruct you in those which, as it happens, are known to me; and we must trust to them and to our luck to help us to pull through if we are challenged."
A full hour or more was taken up in giving the necessary instructions, and then the three quitted the barge. In order to cover their departure, a few of the attendants, in their ordinary attire, accompanied them for some distance, until they were able to mingle with the crowd without attracting any undue notice.
They did not, however, escape notice altogether; far from it. Bruce soon became conscious that a certain amount of attention was directed to them wherever they went. He became also unpleasantly aware that this attention was far from being friendly. Indeed, in the looks directed at them by most of those they passed who were without masks, and the manner in which everybody cleared out of their way and gave them "a wide berth," he was able to form some idea of the detestation and fear in which those myrmidons of the tyrant whom they were supposed to be were held.
These experiences added to his wonder at Mentlah's adopting such a disguise. It was certainly a bold idea—but it seemed to partake of a boldness bordering on recklessness. Nor could he, cudgel his brain as he would, imagine what possible good was likely to come of it. It seemed to him that they were bound to be detected sooner or later; and then what chance would they have of escape? Bruce shook his head to himself and fingered the butt of the revolver, which he had put in a pouch handy for use. But he followed Mentlah's lead all the same, and was careful to keep repeating over and over again to himself the pass-words he had learned.
From time to time they encountered others of Zandalla's emissaries in similar dress, and occasionally some of them made certain secret signs. Mentlah kept an alert look-out for these and answered them promptly; and thus they passed on unchallenged.
At the end of half-an-hour they arrived at a part which was comparatively deserted, where a large gateway marked the entrance to an imposing looking residence. And here a little incident occurred which nearly had a disastrous ending, and which showed the risky character of the adventure in which they were engaged.
Mentlah paused before the gateway and hesitated.
"Here lives a man whom I wish to see—that is, if he happens to be at home," he said to Bruce. "And I should like Prince Milona to see him, too. Do you mind waiting here to keep watch while we are gone? We shall not be very long. If you need us, a call will bring us to your side, for I shall not go beyond the outer courtyard. But I do not wish to be seen going in or out by any of those dressed like ourselves—it might lead to questions being asked."
Bruce nodded assent, and sauntered off a little distance to a seat he had caught sight of, while his two companions disappeared through the gates.
There were very few passers-by, and most of those whom he saw appeared too much taken up with their own affairs to pay attention to Bruce. They were, for the most part, laughing and talking of the fête, hurrying from some amusement at one place to another elsewhere. But he noticed that if any chanced to catch sight of him they hurried on all the faster.
"They're no favourites—Zandalla's gentry, of whom I am supposed to be one, that's clear!" he thought to himself. "I wonder his subjects are meek enough to put up with them! It's not nice even to wear their dress, and see the looks that are hurled at you! If looks could stab I should have been in a bad way before this! That's certain. Hulloa! One of our fellow-beauties has spotted me and is coming to investigate! What the dickens am I to do now? Mentlah said he did not want to be seen coming or going from yonder house; so I can't very well summon him back. I'll have to deal with this johnny on my own! I suppose I must be thankful that there's only one of 'em; for they seem usually to go about in pairs!"
These thoughts passed through his mind as he saw a figure approaching dressed in a similar costume to his own. That the new-comer intended to accost him was certain from the way in which he was making directly for the seat on which Bruce was resting, A moment or two later he was seated beside him:
"A fine night, my brother!" he began. "And a glorious night in more ways than one! A grand night for our master, King Zandalla! You heard the splendid news he told us to night?"
"Aye, aye, I heard it," Bruce answered, doing his best to imitate the stranger's manner and way of speaking. It must be confessed, however, that he began to feel extremely uncomfortable, and this feeling was increased as he distinctly saw the other start at the sound of his voice. He could see nothing of the man's face, it was hidden by the hideous mask, all save the eyes; but these he had seen suddenly flash. And now (Bruce felt rather than saw), the man was looking at him keenly, and with suspicion that was growing every moment. Bruce began to have an uneasy conviction that he must have failed to notice and reply to some secret sign, and that the failure to do so had probably betrayed him. "I've done the wrong thing—or failed to do the right one," he said to himself ruefully. "Here's a pretty kettle of fish! I wish Mentlah would come back. He might know how to deal with this chap!"
"Brother, I fail to recognise your voice, and you have not given me the countersign," the man went on, his tones growing cold and hard. "Perhaps you are a new recruit? Tell me your name and the name of your captain, and which section you belong to."
What could Bruce answer to this? Mentlah, in the instruction he had given, had failed to foresee and provide for any such situation as the present. And Bruce, not knowing the least what to say, remained silent.
"You are some spy masquerading in our guise!" cried the stranger, with sudden vehemence. And springing up he threw himself upon the object of his suspicions.
Bruce caught the gleam of a naked dagger and was quick enough to grasp the fellow's wrist, though, owing to the nature of the disguise, it was difficult to get a good grip. In another moment the two were rolling on the ground in a deadly struggle.
How the affair would have ended if assistance had not come it is hard to say. As it was, there was a rush of many feet, followed by the sound of smothered exclamations, and when Bruce, feeling that he was free, sprang to his feet, he found his antagonist held in the grasp of some stalwart men in servants' livery, with Mentlah and Milona standing by.
"Are you hurt?" Mentlah asked anxiously; and on Bruce replying in the negative, he went on: "That is well! It's fortunate the man did not blow his whistle and bring down a whole pack of his tribe upon us! It's lucky, too, that no one else is about. We'd best hurry on at once! These people will know what to do with their prisoner!"
So saying, Mentlah hastened away, while Bruce's assailant was marched off and disappeared, with his captors, through the gateway.
The three continued on their way in silence, the direction taken leading them farther and farther from the crowd and from the confused medley of sounds coming from the merrymakers. Finally, they reached the bank of a river, where all seemed quiet and deserted. It was a stream of moderate width, fed with ordinary water merely. No phosphorescent glow was thrown out by it, consequently all around was in comparative darkness. There was only the reflected glow from the sky above, which, however, gave light enough to see their way about.
Beside this stream stood an isolated cottage, and Mentlah made for it and knocked at the door. After a short pause it was opened by a man in a garb such as was worn thereabouts by poor fishermen.
He appeared startled, and a little frightened, Bruce thought, when he looked out and saw the three dark, sinister shapes standing outside. But Mentlah's first words evidently reassured him:
"You received my message, Velmah?" he asked. "I guess that you have or you would not be at home on a night like this, when so many are out enjoying themselves."
The man shrugged his shoulders. "Their merrymaking has no attraction for me, my lord," he answered respectfully. "But still, I should have been out looking round had I not heard that you were likely to come to see me. I did not expect you in this dress, though," he added, a little doubtfully. "Is it a prudent disguise to adopt?"
Mentlah gave a short laugh. "It is not, my friend. But our plans have been altered. Something has occurred which has disarranged them. I had to think out another scheme quickly, and had to make use of such things as were to hand. Tell me, has your esteemed master been much at the tower by the fall during the last twenty- four hours?"
"Nearly all the time, my lord, till a few hours since."
"And his friend and ally, whom they call King Faronda—and those others you know of—Goronto and Yumonto—they have been busy with him there, too, I expect?"
"Yes, I believe so, my lord. They all passed here a few hours ago, on their way down to the palace."
"Good! Now, can you tell me whether Krenlis was amongst them?" Mentlah asked this last question with evident anxiety, as though a great deal depended upon the answer.
"I do not know for certain, but I think not, because I saw him for a moment on his way up, in the afternoon. I asked him if he would come out with me to-night, to have a look round, and he said he had been told that he would probably be required at the tower on special duty."
"Good again! Very good news, that! It fits in with what I had expected and hoped for! Just take a look round and see if there are any concealed spies about! You know better where to look than I do. Then we are ready to start."
The man fetched a lantern from within. It was a sort of dark lantern, a very small affair, which, however, on being turned on, threw out a very powerful shaft of light. With this in hand he disappeared among the surrounding trees and bushes, and was absent some little time. When he returned he came from another direction altogether.
"I see no sign of anyone this side," he said. "Shall I crossover and try the other bank?"
"No, no; time is getting on," Mentlah answered. "If I am right in my expectations, we have not too much time before us. Let us start. Bring that lantern. It may be useful."
As he spoke he moved towards the stream, the others following. A canoe-like boat was lying moored beside the bank, and into this he stepped and seated himself in the stern, and Bruce and Milona sat down beside him. Their new friend took up a paddle, and, casting off, began slowly to make headway against the current.
Mentlah kept a sharp look-out on all sides as they passed along. Soon they entered a gorge, and the banks became higher and more rugged. Rocks appeared, covered with dark trees; but there was still light enough to distinguish their way. Then they heard a sound like that of a distant waterfall, and presently, up among the frowning, overhanging cliffs, they saw a dark, battlemented building, with lights showing through two or three of the upper windows.
The sound of the fall became gradually louder, until at last, as they reached the foot of a high, precipitous rock which rose sheer from the dark water, they could tell that they must be close to it. Upon the top of the precipice they could see the tower, embowered in a mass of foliage.
"We've got to reach one of those windows," Mentlah said in a low tone. "In these dresses that presents no great difficulty. The only trouble is whether we can manage it without being seen!" Then, addressing the owner of the boat, he added: "You will wait for us, and be ready when you hear my signal?"
"I will wait and watch, my lord. I know of a good hiding place for the boat just beside the fall," was the answer.
Mentlah took up the lantern, and, spreading his "wings," rose slowly into the air, awkwardly at first, but with more ease as he mounted higher. Bruce and Milona, imitating his example, followed him upwards, and all three became merged in the shadow thrown by the towering, tree-covered cliff.
AS the three adventurers rose higher, Mentlah so directed their flight as to keep well in the deep shadows of the overhanging precipices. Moving thus, slowly and cautiously, they gradually ascended until they attained a position from which they could look down upon the roof of the building from the rear.
Here Mentlah landed upon an isolated bush-covered ledge in the face of the cliff, which rose to a still greater height behind them. Upon this ledge he threw himself down full length, and taking out some pocket field-glasses, began to scan carefully the whole scene spread out before them.
His companions lay down also, one on each side of him, and imitated his example.
Some distance away, below them, was the tower, massive and square, and attached to other smaller buildings which it soared above and overlooked. Upon the side facing them it was in darkness. Windows there were, but they were unlighted, and little more could be made out than the general outline. Beyond this group of buildings they could dimly perceive the gorge up which they had come, with here and there glimpses of the river, which just reflected a feeble glimmer from the sky overhead. Then there was a belt of country lying almost in darkness, and beyond this the illuminated lake—a veritable fairy-land as seen from their position, its shores dotted with stately buildings, its glowing waters with myriads of lighted craft.
Upon its further shore ethereal looking cliffs rose, streaked in places with phosphorescent torrents which, at that distance, looked like mere glistening golden threads. There were very few habitations upon this further shore; but one large pile could be distinctly seen, perched upon a headland which jutted out into the lake.
Mentlah drew the attention of his companions to this edifice.
"That," he said, "is called Rancla Castle. It is the home of one of our party named Dalyndis, a powerful noble who has a considerable following. It is so placed as to overlook the entrance to the lake on that side. That is to say, the river which runs out into the plain beyond, and which, as I have told you before, is the way out of the lake usually traversed by those who wish to leave it, runs under its walls. I mention this because it may be that if it comes to fighting we shall gather there to make a stand."
He spoke quietly, and in low, cautious tones which were only just audible to his companions.
To Bruce, in his anxiety and impatience to be doing something actively on Maurice's behalf, this kind of talk sounded unsatisfactory. He was waiting for information of what had brought them there, and of what they were to do next. Talk of what might occur in a speculative future had just then little interest for him.
"What about Maurice?" he asked bluntly. "How can our coming here aid him? Of what use is it for us to come here and leave him far off over yonder?"
"It all depends, my friend, upon whether my calculations prove right," was the answer, given very deliberately. "I warned you that our enterprise was of the nature of a forlorn hope. I ought perhaps rather to say that I am in the position of a gambler who has staked everything upon one last chance. If what I am hoping for comes to pass, then you will see quickly enough the wisdom of our being here. If it does not—well, even so we shall have lost nothing, for there was nothing we could do over yonder."
"But Maurice is there," Bruce persisted. "He is now miles away! And while he is there, alone, and with no friends near him, we are here wasting time—"
Mentlah interrupted the finish of the speech by a slight exclamation, and turned his glasses eagerly in a different direction to that in which he had been looking. Then he drew a long breath.
"Ah!" he murmured, "I think it looks as though I was right. Can you see a train of lights yonder, winding like a fiery snake across the country between us and the lake?"
"Yes, yes! I see something of the sort!"
"It is a procession—a string of barges and boats coming along the river—the same way that we came, is it not?"
"It may be. It looks something of the kind. What then? What is it?"
"It is Zandalla and his particular friends coming here to his tower, escorted by a crowd in boats cheering themselves hoarse, I doubt not, if we could only hear them."
"Zandalla coming here? What for?"
"He is coming here—and he is bringing your friend Maurice with him."
Bruce started, and a dim light began to break in upon him. "What, then, is this place—this tower, as you call it?" he asked.
"In the first place, my friend, it is called Zandalla's Tower; in the second, it is the retreat in which he carries on all his secret doings—his scientific experiments and research—in a word, it is his workshop, his laboratory, and—his private prison, in one. It is here he usually orders those to be brought who deeply offend him. And of such who come here few are ever again seen of men. Do you now begin to understand?"
Bruce shuddered. "I think I do," he said; "I suppose that is why he is bringing my friend here?"
"Exactly. You see that the situation is isolated and lonely. He prefers it so. He discourages his loving subjects from coming here, on the plea that he wishes to keep the place quiet and retired, so that he can, when so minded, pass his time in contemplation and study. It was you who put the idea of coming here into my head."
"I?" exclaimed Bruce in surprise. "How could I give you the idea, seeing that I did not know of the existence of such a building?"
"It was what you said you thought Zandalla intended towards your friend. It occurred to me then that if he had any such sinister designs as were in your thoughts, he would be more likely to carry them out here than at his palace. It is his way. That gave me the first idea. I thought it out, and decided that if it were so there would be more chance for us to do something effectual here, where the place is so isolated, and where he keeps but a few attendants, than it would have been at his palace, where he is surrounded by a host of people."
"Yes, I see it now," Bruce replied; "but the chances in our favour are still very small here, I fear?"
"So they are. I warned you that we should have but a poor chance, and I determined to stake everything—my life itself, so far as I am concerned—upon it."
"It was good of you," said Bruce gratefully. "Whatever comes of it, I shall feel that you have acted loyally—splendidly!"
"I haven't done much yet," responded his companion drily. "The pinch has yet to come; but there are one or two other points I may as well now explain. I have a friend here named Krenlis, who is one of Zandalla's officers. He may or may not be able to assist us. Then Goronto has brought here his 'find' of Solaynium, that all-important metal which is wanted to complete the great airship. You heard me ask my friend Velmah, whose boat brought us, if Zandalla and his confederates had been here the best part of the last twenty-four hours, and he said they had. I had already guessed that Goronto had brought his find—and also his prisoner—to the tower. Hence Zandalla would naturally have passed most of his time in the same place since Goronto's return. Both the invaluable metal and the strange prisoner were there to attract him. What more natural than that he should return here as soon as he felt he could safely get away?"
"It was well reasoned," Milona here put in. "You seem, by the way, friend Mentlah, to have many secret friends on whose devotion you can rely, in spite of the dangers that surround you and your party, and in spite of Zandalla's power and resources."
It was the first observation that Prince Milona had offered for some time. He had remained abstracted and gloomy, and had contented himself with acquiescing in everything that Mentlah proposed, without asking questions or offering any criticism.
The fact was that the warm-hearted, chivalrous-minded young prince felt Maurice's position more deeply than he chose to tell. Not only had he come to entertain a warm friendship for him, but he was very sensitive on the point that Maurice was the guest of himself and his royal father, and—as he looked upon it—it would be an indelible disgrace if what now threatened came to pass. So while Mentlah had been planning one thing, Milona had been planning—or trying to plan—another. It was nothing less than a wild idea—vague and unformed as yet—of offering himself to Zandalla in his present prisoner's place, on condition that he allowed Maurice to go free. He was trying to think out how this could be effected, and meantime he knew that if he ventured to broach it to his companions they would at once be dead against it, and perhaps try all they could to prevent him carrying it out.
Accordingly, he had kept his thoughts and intentions to himself, and said little. As he did not understand Mentlah's plan, he did not feel much interest in it; believing that his own idea would turn out to be the only feasible one. But now that Mentlah had explained matters, Milona was beginning to think that perhaps there might be more in it than he had at first given him credit for.
Mentlah, in answer to his remark, now answered:
"Yes, Prince, it is true that I am honoured by possessing a few well-tried, devoted friends here and there, some of them in unlikely places. It is, I am afraid I must say, due as much to accident as to any personal merit of my own."
"To accident? How do you mean?"
"To the accident of birth—which happens to be known to those who are my confidants."
"To the accident of birth?" repeated Milona, evidently greatly surprised. "You are certainly one, friend Mentlah, who delights to deal in riddles and mysteries."
"If I do, Prince, it is not from choice, but because it has been forced upon me by destiny," was the reply, given in a tone which expressed some bitterness. "But this is not the time to speak of such matters. Zandalla and his crowd of satellites are coming nearer, bringing their prisoner, and the moment is approaching! when we shall have to act."
"I will show you directly. By the by, you have your aba ready for use when wanted? I have mine—"
"H'm!" said Milona, doubtfully. "Do not forget that as against this dress, such as we are i wearing, rambas are of no use. I suppose that that is one of Zandalla's inventions?"
"Yes, but all those we shall have to deal with are not so dressed. And do not forget that it cuts both ways. If his men- bats are invulnerable as against our rambas, we on our side are safe against theirs."
"True. But there is something else—which you do not know. Our friend here has a weapon different to ours. It is one of the kind in use where he came from. It is something like what used to be the vogue ages ago on our globe, I have heard. But however that may be, this dress which we are wearing is no defence against it. With it he shot down the men-bats who attacked us in the caves. He drove them off when our rambas failed."
"That's a good thing to know," said Mentlah, in a tone which indicated his surprise. "Then, while we are safe against them, they are not safe against us. Is that actually the case?"
"Yes; I have seen it—have had very convincing proof of it; and the fact may—as I begin to see—be of great service to us here."
"I begin to think so, too," muttered Bruce. "And it makes me wish I had borrowed Mike's revolver as well as my own. It might have been of more use here than it is likely to be to him. However," he added grimly, more to himself than to the others, "I've brought a good reserve of cartridges—that's one comfort—and if it comes to a real tug of war I'll use 'em on Zandalla and his crew without mercy, if by doing so I can rescue Maurice from their clutches."
WHILE Mentlah and his companions had been making their way to Zandalla's retreat, Maurice had been carted about to make, as Bruce had expressed it, a "raree show" for the gaping populace.
A show he certainly was, since he was being exhibited as one. But he did not create anything like the sensation he would have done had the people been told that he had come from a distant planet.
It suited Zandalla's purpose, as has been seen, to throw doubts on the truth of the statement that Amando had visited our Earth. The idea of ridiculing the idea as crazy nonsense had come to him when questioning Maurice after he had first been brought before him. Up to that point Maurice had not had much ground for complaint as to his treatment. His captors—Goronto and Yumonto, who were in joint command—at that time, at any rate, believed the account he gave of himself. They asked him many questions, and showed themselves very interested in what he told them of life upon our Earth, of Amando's visit to it, and of the voyage back to Mars.
As a being from another world he was naturally a wonder, and as such they treated him. They refused to restore him to his friends—that point they had decided to reserve for their masters to settle—but meantime their curiosity and interest outweighed their animosity against him as one of Amando's friends, and they treated him with a certain amount of rough courtesy. He had every reason to hope, therefore, from their manner, and from what they said, that his imprisonment was not likely to be either long or particularly unpleasant.
But when he was brought before Zandalla and Faronda the prospect changed quickly for the worse. Faronda, indeed, though overbearing, and inclined to be insulting, was not in a mood to bother himself much about what seemed to him so small a prize. He had great ambitions, and when Amando had started on his trip to Earth had indulged in golden dreams of conquest and power. He had no doubt whatever that Amando had gone to certain death; and as he had taken his only son Prince Milona with him, there was no one in the direct line to fill his place. It seemed certain that there would be a general scramble for it, and in that event Faronda was fully resolved to be one of the first. And so he had been—not only, indeed, the first, but practically the only one. He had gone on, step by step, gaining adherents and extending his influence daily, until he had been on the very point of capturing Amando's capital.
Then Amando had returned unexpectedly and upset all his plans and hopes. In the heat of his disappointment and exasperation Faronda had, as has been related, made one bid for victory. Guessing that at such a moment his foes would be merrymaking and rejoicing over their ruler's return, and that their vigilance would consequently be relaxed, he had sent spies to gain access to the "Ramaylia" and damage her in the only part in which (as he knew) she was vulnerable. At the same time he made an attack with his squadron of airships under cover of the artificial cloud which his friend Zandalla—not Faronda himself, as was generally supposed—had invented.
That attack failed, and although the "Ramaylia" was rendered useless and remained so, Faronda found that Amando's great achievement of reaching another planet had brought him such an amount of increased prestige and influence that it was hopeless to try to contend against him. His (Faronda's) adherents fell away from him faster than they had formerly joined him, and he had reason to congratulate himself upon the fact that Amando left him alone and failed to follow him up. That, as has been stated, was because Amando was waiting till the "Ramaylia" should be serviceable again.
Faronda, on his side, was glad of a state of affairs which enabled him to wait for the completion of the "Conqueror," the great airship which his ally Zandalla was building to outrival the "Ramaylia."
So isolated from the rest of the world had the little kingdom of Mardaylia managed to keep itself—thanks to its wonderful ring of magnetic rocks—that even Amando scarcely knew of its existence. He certainly did not know or suspect that hidden away, as it were, in that tiny unknown State was a scientist of remarkable knowledge and skill, an ambitious, unscrupulous schemer, who was secretly building a great airship to challenge the "Ramaylia."
Thus had it come about that Zandalla on, the one side and Amando on the other—and each unknown to the other—had despatched a party to seek for the rare metal of which each stood in need.
How these two expeditions clashed, and how Zandalla's people— which had arrived first—had found the coveted prize and then destroyed the galleries leading to the place where it was discovered, has been explained. They might, indeed, have got away with it without molestation or pursuit from Amando's larger party had it not been for Maurice's adventure with the giant bat. They had seen the arrival of the squadron, and were actually on the point of starting on their own return journey, when through their glasses they had seen in the moonlight a youth on the upper wall of the old castle. They took him for Prince Milona, and vague thoughts of the possibility of capturing him had entered their minds, when the thing was rendered easy for them by the big bat, which had also seen a possible victim, and had swooped upon Maurice and carried him in their direction. How they drove off the bat and rescued his prey has been told, but not their disappointment when they found that, after all, they had not captured Prince Milona, but an absolute stranger instead.
So great was Yumonto's chagrin that "for two pins," to use a popular expression, he would have dropped him back into the water. Had he done so the whole after history of events, as here recorded, would have been altered. Maurice, indeed, would in all probability have been rescued by his friends who had turned out so promptly in the "Shooting Star" to look for him; and he would have been saved from captivity. On the other hand, Zandalla and Faronda would have been able to complete their big airship and surprise the "Ramaylia" before Amando had so much as an idea of what was going forward.
When Maurice was brought before the two allies Faronda treated him with contemptuous indifference rather than direct hostility. The fact that Maurice was one of the persons brought back by Amando served to remind him (Faronda) once more of his disappointment, and he was mean enough and cowardly enough to vent his ill-humour on an innocent prisoner by inflicting upon him a few petty insults.
That was all—or would have been all—Maurice would have had to complain of if it had rested with Faronda. But Zandalla was, as a scientist, interested in Amando's wondrous feat, and he had gone on to ply Maurice with questions. Many of these were very shrewd and searching, and presently he evinced great curiosity as to what had been the net results of the expedition.
"I suppose," he said—and his manner showed real interest—"that King Amando has brought back a very wonderful collection of curios and specimens? I expect he has enough to fill a museum? What is he doing with them? Are they on view in any of the existing museums, or is he waiting to build a big building specially for their reception? I suppose that amongst them are many strange animals, and all kinds of queer creatures and plants, as well as examples of the clothing and costumes in use on your globe; the weapons the inhabitants make use of in warfare, the special machines and inventions they employ in their manufactures, and so on? King Amando is one capable of making a clever and useful collection of such things for the information and instruction of his subjects."
In reply to this Maurice had found it necessary to tell all about the accident to the "Ramaylia" when landing on the Earth, and about the long time taken up by the necessary repairs in a part of the world which was little better than a wilderness. And finally he had gone on to explain how Amando had made a hurried departure without really having seen anything of the planet he had come so far to visit, save the desolate tract of country upon which he had first landed.
At this Zandalla had expressed great astonishment, and for a time had remained silent and lost in thought. Then he and Faronda had left the apartment together, and remained away for some time. When they returned their manner had completely changed. Zandalla wore an air of crafty triumph, as might one who had just done a very clever but wily thing, while Faronda seemed seething with suppressed excitement and impatience.
They questioned Maurice further, pouring out query after query, and he replied to everything frankly and innocently, all unsuspicious of the traps that were being laid for him. It was not until they had involved him in what they were plausibly able to point to as a tissue of inconsistencies that they began to reveal their real purpose.
Then, at last, Zandalla had shown the "cloven hoof." He declared bluntly that he could not credit Maurice's account, and that he did not believe that Amando had ever visited another planet. "And if he did not," he added, "then he never left our own globe at all! He must have passed the time in some unknown part of our world, where he picked you up and instructed you what to say! Confess now that the whole thing is a concoction! It is clear that Amando has brought nothing back with him such as must have been the case if what you say is true. Confess the truth, and we will treat you well, and you will have no reason to regret it."
And when Maurice had indignantly refused, Zandalla had proceeded from soft words and persuasion to the most terrible threats. At last he seemed to lose patience, saying:
"I can waste no more words over you now, but I will give you time for reflection. To-night we have a fête, to which you will be taken, and at which you will be exhibited to the people. Afterwards you will be brought back here. If by that time you have altered your mind, well and good! But if not—well, you will find that I am not one to be played with, or to threaten without performing. I will find a way of making you confess what we want you to! That is my last word!"
"And my last word," Maurice had cried, his eyes flashing scorn and defiance, "will be then as now, 'No!' King Amando is a good man, a man of high, exalted honour, one who would never stoop to such a paltry fraud as you want to insinuate! And that you know, and know well. All your doubts are mere pretences! You pretend that you have questioned me fairly, but you know that you have purposely confused me, so as to make it appear that I have contradicted myself! Why, if you really wanted the truth, I would say, bring witnesses here—any honest, fair-minded persons—and I will tell them all about the world I was born in! I can tell them thousands of things which they will know I could not possibly have invented, and they will admit that I speak the truth! But you do not want the truth! You are jealous of King Amando; or you have some despicable reason for wishing to make me aid you to vilify him! But I will never do it! You may try your best and your worst! You may kill me! But you will never succeed! My last word before I die will be No!'"
"We shall see," returned Zandalla, with a baleful menace in his tones. "There are other ways besides killing outright! I think you will say what we want you to before we have done with you!"
Thus had the interview ended. Maurice had been carried off to Zandalla's palace and there exhibited. There he had listened to the tyrant's artfully-worded statement, and as he looked round and saw the strange assemblage of maskers, and noted the expression on the faces of those without masks, he perceived that he could look for no support or help in that quarter. He would fain have told them the truth, have given the lie to Zandalla before them all. But he could see that they not only all wished to believe the statement that had been made, but his instinct told him that they were determined not to disbelieve it.
How little had he guessed, as he looked vacantly and helplessly around, that his faithful friends, Bruce and Milona, were there just in front of him!
And how little did he guess, when, after having been carted about in the streets, and on Zandalla's barge, he finally found himself back at the gloomy tower from which he had started—how little did he imagine that those same friends were there, too, and that they were watching his arrival from the roof above!
MENTLAH and his two companions had moved from their perch up among the rocks, and had come sailing down through the upper darkness on to the roof of the tower. Here they had a large square space to move about upon, while the battlements afforded concealment, from behind which they could continue to keep a sharp look-out upon all that went on below.
Peering over, they could see the lighted courtyard beneath, where a few guards and soldiers were lounging about waiting the arrival of their master. In and out amongst them, now and then, black shapes passed to and fro—forms of servitors dressed up as the three were themselves.
As the procession ascended the river, the accompanying boats gradually dropped away, until in time Zandalla's barge was left alone.
Its progress against the stream, even though propelled by two banks of rowers, was slow, but it arrived at last, and made fast alongside a landing-place immediately outside the courtyard. The guard turned out to receive it, and the watchers above saw Zandalla and Faronda, with their lieutenants, land first. Then came a troop of officers, among whom they saw Maurice marching between two armed guards.
They all crossed the courtyard in turn, and disappeared from sight.
"So!" breathed Mentlah. "He has come, you see, as I told you I thought he would! Now we want to know what time we probably have before us? Zandalla and his crowd must be pretty well tired out, I should say. My idea is that they will probably seek their beds before doing anything further. If so we have a few hours in which to work!"
"It looks as though the remainder of the night will be stormy," said Prince Milona, as a sudden gust of wind came swirling across the top of the tower, and swept onwards, with a low roar, through the tops of the trees beyond.
Mentlah looked up at the sky. It had certainly become overcast, and the drifting masses of dark cloud showed that high above them a strong wind was blowing. Then another gust, a little more blustering than the last, scurried past, moaning eerily on its way. Bruce, in his turn, took a look round, and gazed out towards the lake. There was no longer any reflected glow in the sky, and the great sheet of water had very perceptibly darkened. The numberless lights, too, which had made the scene appear so fairylike, were fast being extinguished. People were evidently going to bed; and the whole landscape was changing its character, settling down into a scene at once weird and impressive.
Mentlah remained for some time scrutinising the weather signs; so long, indeed, that Bruce once more became impatient.
"A little wind won't hurt us," he muttered, "nor a little rain, either. It ought to be all in our favour! It will be darker, and there will be more noise about to cover our movements."
"What you say is right enough," was the answer, "but I was not thinking about that. I see signs of a coming storm—something out of the common. I think there is going to be a very high wind blowing exactly from the quarter I should most desire it to do if I could order it myself. That has put a further idea into my head. Should we succeed in what we have come for—I hardly dare hope it—then this wind would almost seem to have been sent on purpose to help us."
"How so? In what way?"
"You will see if the fates are kind. Now I want you to aid me with this rope."
While speaking the young fellow had been laboriously undoing a coil of stout cord which he wound round his waist beneath his dress. When he had got it free he showed Bruce how to manipulate it, and explained certain signals when he wished it to be moved further to the right or the left, as the case might be. Then he glanced towards one of the turrets, of which there were two at opposite corners.
"You must be on the watch for a surprise visit from that turret," he warned. "Prince! you had better remain near it, and listen for sounds of any one coming up the stairway from below. I do not think it is very likely, but it is as well to be on one's guard. Our 'brothers' the men-bats do not like squally weather for outdoor scouting. Therefore they may be all the more likely tonight to come up that way to have a look about, instead of taking bird-like flights in the air round the walls below."
Bruce and Milona promised obedience to his directions, and Mentlah mounted the parapet, and then, cord in hand, sank down from sight outside the wall, Bruce holding on to the other end of the rope.
The use of the cord was soon apparent. Mentlah's object was to visit the various windows below and obtain peeps inside. In this way he hoped to be able to find out the apartment in which Maurice was confined. When he came to a window, he could hang on for a while by the cord, instead of continuing the motion of his "wings," the sound of which might have been heard within and so have attracted undesirable attention.
Meanwhile Maurice had been taken to a cell about half way up the tower, and there Zandalla had ordered him to be shut up for the rest of the night.
"You can have a few more hours to make up your mind," he said grimly, "but this will be your last respite. When I come again I shall not be so complacent as I have been hitherto."
Left to himself Maurice first went to the window, which he found was barred. He shook each bar, one after the other, but they were all firm and strong. Then he directed his attention in turn to the door, the walls, and the ceiling, but could see nothing calculated to give him any hope of getting out of the place. Finally he sat down on a low stool and leant against the rough table beside it. He was tired, and hungry too, yet, though his gaolers had left him some food, he felt too sick at heart to touch it. Now and again he would take up a pitcher which stood beside the plate and the lighted lamp on the table, and drink sparingly of the water it contained. Then he relapsed once more into his listless attitude, his thoughts going over and over, again and again, the events of the past few days.
Where, he wondered, were Bruce and the rest of his friends? He had been told that no airship could pass the rocky barriers of the lake, so that he had no hope of aid in that way. And how else could they come to his help, and of what use would it be if they did? Each time his thoughts travelled over the same ground, only to reach the same conclusion—that there was no possible hope of rescue. So he had ceased to hope for it, and had made up his mind to die—to die faithful to his friends, and adhering to the truth about King Amando to the last.
After a while, during which he seemed to have dropped off into a light dose, he roused up with a start. Surely some one had called his name!
He sprang up and stared round, then shook his head and smiled wanly. 'Twas but a fancy, or perhaps a dream! No one was likely to call his name there!
He was about to sit listlessly down again, when some slight sound outside the window drew his attention that way. He went to it and looked out through the bars, and was startled to see a dark, hideous shape dimly looming up against the sky. A moment later he turned away in disgust and anger. It was only one of the men- bats! He had seen plenty of them going about amongst the inhabitants, and though he did not know precisely what their position was, or what they were supposed to do, he had noticed that the people seemed to dislike them, and avoided them wherever they could.
"The beggar has been sent here to spy on me, I suppose!" he muttered moodily. "So, then, they won't even leave me to myself! I am to be spied upon by a watcher through the window!"
But before he had reached his stool he paused suddenly. Surely he had heard his name again.
He turned swiftly round and stared at the window and at the sinister shape beyond it. And while he stared there came once more a low whisper, which floated softly across to him.
"Maurice! Come this way" Then, when, in obedience to the summons, he had reached the window, the horrible-looking mask breathed out the words: "I am Mentlah."
Maurice started, and glanced at the figure suspiciously.
"Who is Mentlah?" he asked cautiously.
"One who tried to serve you before," was the low answer, "and got into trouble over it."
"Yes, alas! He lost his life through trying to help me!" returned. Maurice with a sigh. "It was for that they killed him! They told me so! So how can you be Mentlah? Mentlah is dead!"
"No; I escaped! Your friends, Bruce and Prince Milona, rescued me, and brought me here in their airship! They are here now, close at hand. We have come—"
"No—no!" Maurice answered, hopelessly. "I have been told that no airship can come here! Even the one that brought me could not fly past the barrier rooks. This is some trap! You are one of Zandalla's spies! For I know too well that Mentlah was killed, and that my friends are far away! How you came to have their names so ready to hand I—" But he did not finish the sentence, for he saw that the shape was no longer there. It had shot upwards and gone from sight.
Maurice shook his head. "I knew it was a trick!" he muttered. "Now I wonder what they hoped to gain by that little bit of deception?"
He sat down again; but before many minutes had passed his name was again uttered in low tones, and this time—surely—in a voice that he recognised! He rushed to the window, and there he saw—a black, hideous shape, to be sure, but the mask had been removed, and the face looking at him through the bars was that of his chum, Bruce!
IT would be difficult to describe the feelings of Maurice as he saw his chum outside the prison window in such strange array. For a time he almost doubted the evidence of his own senses. It seemed to be Bruce right enough—and yet—how could it be? How could Bruce have followed him into this strange and unknown country, where he had been told no airship could penetrate? Above all, how could he possibly be there in such an extraordinary disguise, flying about around the building like a veritable bird of the night?
And Mentlah, too—Maurice had been told that Mentlah was dead. How came he there, then, with Bruce, in the same guise?
It must be remembered that Maurice knew nothing about Bruce and Milona having captured the men-bats in the caves and having afterwards assumed their dress. All he knew was that there had been men so arrayed among the people of the red airship by which he had been captured; and he had seen others similarly dressed coming and going amongst the populace since he had arrived in the country.
But he had thought that Mentlah was dead, and that Bruce was far away. Hence to see these two appear suddenly and unexpectedly in such a fashion was enough to startle and bewilder any ordinary intellect. Maurice felt that there was an air of unreality—to put it in the mildest way—about the whole affair. Indeed, for a few seconds there ran through his mind the wild idea, "Could it be that Mentlah and Bruce were both dead, and that these were their spirits appearing in this form?" He had had so much to try him and to excite his mind during the preceding two or three days, so many and so unexpected had the experiences been that had come to him, that it is scarcely to be wondered at if he felt a little distraught.
However, after a brief interval of wonder and hesitation his reason began to exert itself.
"Is it really you, Bruce?" he breathed in hushed tones. "How is it possible that you are here—and in such disguise too? And Mentlah, who wished to befriend me when I was first made a prisoner? Is he really still alive? Did he escape, and are you and he acting together now?"
"You've just hit it, old chap!" was the cheery answer. "It is I right enough, and this is Mentlah; and Prince Milona is on the roof keeping guard. There is no time to explain more now. We have come to try to get you out! Here are a file and two or three other useful tools, which Mentlah brought for you. See what you can do to loosen one or two of the bars of your window while we take a look round to see that no one is about, Fortunately the wind is getting up, and the sound of it will help to cover the noise of the filing. But work cautiously all the same. Milona has just made a signal that he wants us. We will return in a few minutes."
Even while Bruce had been speaking there had come some violent tugs at the rope which the two outside were holding on to. This line had, after Mentlah had once located Maurice's window, been fastened round one of the battlements on the part of the roof immediately overhead. When Mentlah had found that Maurice distrusted him he had promptly gone back to fetch Bruce. "Come down at once with me to see your friend," he had said. "Poor chap, he is too dispirited, or too cautious, to believe what I tell him! You must come yourself!" So Bruce had secured the rope and descended with Mentlah. And now Milona, who had been left alone, was giving urgent signals on the rope. That could only mean that some sort of danger was threatening up there.
Leaving Maurice, therefore, for the time being, the two mounted again to the roof—and they were none too soon.
Milona had been attacked by three people, who had come out of the door of the turret to which Mentlah had directed attention. The young Prince had managed to disable one with his aba, but the others had rushed in, and in the struggle the weapon had been broken. They had almost overcome him, and one was on the point of dealing a blow with a dagger, when Mentlah and Bruce came on the scene and attacked them in turn. There was a fierce, determined struggle. Two of the assailants were men-bats, and they were proof against Mentlah's aba. Then through the open doorway two more men-bats appeared and came to the aid of their friends, and all the time Bruce was afraid to use his revolver for fear the sound should bring yet more of them upon the scene.
The mêlée therefore resolved itself into a hand-to-hand struggle, and here Bruce's superior strength decided the outcome. For the moment a veritable madness possessed him. His new-born hope of being able to rescue his chum was threatened with defeat through the interference of these people, and the thought filled him with overmastering rage. He threw himself into the fight with a vigour and determination that astonished his assailants, and in the end fairly cowed them. Two of them he seized, one in each hand, and actually knocked them together like two wooden dolls; and when he had in that way temporarily shaken the breath out of them, he pounced upon another couple and served them in the same manner. So effectual was the treatment that his friends were able to complete his work by binding those he had thus treated before they had recovered sufficiently to make a further resistance.
It has already been explained that owing to the smaller force of gravity on Mars all the three visitors from our planet found themselves much stronger than the ordinary Martian. Their muscles were used to deal with heavier weights when it came to a trial of strength between them and Martians of equal size. And, since Bruce was an unusually strong young fellow on his own planet, it is not surprising that the determination to rescue Maurice at all costs had roused in him a formidableness which carried everything before it.
In a few minutes the fight was over, and the assailants were lying bound on the roof. It had been for the most part a silent conflict, for the masks of the men-bats interfered with the use of their voices and muffled their outcry. Such noise has had occurred had mingled with the unceasing sounds caused by the rising tempest, and had been carried away by the wind.
As Mentlah stooped over one of the captive men-bats the prisoner whispered his name. The young fellow gave a start of surprise.
"Krenlis!" he whispered back. "Is it you?"
"Hush! Don't let these others know anything. Carry me inside the turret out of their sight, and then we can talk! I had no idea it was you till a minute ago, when I heard you speak and recognised your voice!"
Mentlah took the hint and spoke a word to Bruce, who picked the man up and carried him inside the turret. There Mentlah loosed his bonds, and the two talked together apart in whispers. Then Mentlah turned to Bruce.
"After all," said he, "this has turned out a fortunate affair. Maurice will have no need to bother with his bars. There is a shorter way to set him free; Krenlis has given me the key of his cell. Let us hasten to him at once, and if nothing untoward happens your friend will be free, and we shall be off and away in another ten minutes!"
This was cheering news indeed!
Leaving Milona to keep guard over the prisoners the other three proceeded to descend the stairs inside the tower.
Krenlis led them straight to the cell in which Maurice was confined, and a moment later the two chums had met once more. They found Maurice frantically working away at a bar, upon which, however, his file made little or no impression.
"It is well you have come to let me out another way," he said ruefully, "for I could make no headway here. It would have taken me twenty-four hours to get through even one bar."
Mentlah looked at the bars more closely.
"Humph!" was his comment. "I see! I might have thought of that. Zandalla is too clever a man to bar his prisoners with metal that a file will easily bite through! Well, no matter; we have found an easier way! Now listen! You two return to the roof and take the bat dresses off all the prisoners who are wearing them, and let Maurice put one on as quickly as possible. I am not going to leave without trying to take with me something more than our released friend. Krenlis and I will join you in a few minutes."
Bruce and Maurice accordingly started off to find their way back to where Milona was awaiting them. In this they had no difficulty, as the distance was not great, and there was no one about. Krenlis and those with him had been entrusted with the duty of watching that part of the building, and there was now no one else to be feared.
They had soon carried out their instructions, and it was not long before Maurice was clad in one of the captured dresses. A little while later Mentlah and Krenlis joined them. The former was in high spirits. He was carrying a casket, which he showed to his friends, and there was a sound of triumph in his tones, low as they were, as he spoke to them.
"Do you think your friend can fly well in that dress?" he asked of Bruce.
"In a wind like this anybody ought to be able to," Maurice returned. "That is, if you mean flying with the wind behind you. I should not care to try to fly against it."
"Just so. That is what I mean. Now listen! Do you think you could venture to trust yourselves to the wind and fly over the barriers back to our castle? If you are not afraid to do that I will send a trusty guide with you, and when you get there your airship, Prince Milona, as you know, is awaiting you. You can take her out, mount in the air, and run her before the wind till you get beyond the influence of the magnetic rocks. After that you will be free to make for your home as fast as you please. And when you arrive there give this casket to King Amando with my respectful greetings."
"What does it contain?" asked Milona curiously.
"Something that he will find useful," was the answer. "You will see when he opens it."
"And what are you going to do, my friend," the Prince queried. "Are we not to have your company with us?"
Mentlah shook his head. "No; my place is with my friends," he replied. "I cannot desert them."
"But how will you fare—all of you?" Bruce asked. "I fear Zandalla has the majority of the people here on his side, and he will get the best of it if it comes to a fight. And even if there is no open rupture, it is folly for you to remain here! He tried to kill you once—I have no doubt his people acted by his orders when they left you to be devoured by the great bats on that rock where we found you—and he will certainly try to kill you again when he discovers that you escaped. I do not know, of course, what his particular cause of enmity against you may be, but whatever it is it will be multiplied many times if he discovers that you have been the means of aiding his prisoner to escape."
"If he discovers that much he may also find out that I have stolen this," said Mentlah, pointing to the casket. "If he does his rage will know no bounds, and he will do his best, I have no doubt, to revenge himself. But my friends will stand by me, and if matters come to the worst we shall die fighting."
Bruce took Milona and Maurice on one side.
"I don't like this, Prince," said he. "It seems to me it would be a pretty mean thing for us to go off and seek safety in flight, and leave this young fellow, and Mike, and your friends whom we left in Molkris's barge, to their fate. I, for one, feel I cannot do it! Mentlah has shown himself brave and generous, and has done all he could on our behalf. And now he unselfishly urges us to make good our escape and leave him to face the consequences! We cannot desert them! It is right enough—indeed it is absolutely necessary—that you should return to King Amando, and inform him of all that has occurred. Perhaps, if we are beleaguered in some castle hereabouts, and we can hold out long enough, King Amando may be able to send us some aid."
"I feel with you, Bruce!" Maurice put in stoutly. "I am not going to run off and leave him and his friends to fight it out with their enemies. They have befriended us, and the right and manly thing to do is for us to espouse their cause in return, to say nothing of our duty to our own friends whom we should be leaving behind!"
Upon this there ensued a brief discussion. Milona, seeing that the two were his guests, deemed it right to urge them to go with him and then return to try to aid the others; but he felt in his heart that they were right. He admired the spirit which dictated their course of action, and at last, in answer to a direct question from Bruce, he admitted that he would act in the same way if the state of affairs did not render it absolutely essential that he should return in order to inform King Amando and gain his help.
When Mentlah joined in the council he was at first very much against Bruce and Maurice staying. But when he found that they were not to be moved he reluctantly gave way.
"Now will you tell me, before we part," said Milona, when matters had been settled, "what is in this casket?"
"Yes, I will tell you, Prince. It contains a piece of the coveted solaynium—the one thing King Amando requires to make his great airship serviceable once more!"
HALF an hour later the canoe belonging to the fisherman Velmah passed down the river. But of those who had come up in her, Milona had gone away "on the wings of the wind," and Velmah, equipped in one of the captured "bat" dresses, had gone with him to guide him to Molkris's castle.
The high wind rendered the journey of the adventurous flyers comparatively easy so far as the actual flight was concerned. There was of course the danger of encountering some party of the men-bats out on scouting duty; and apart from this there would be, at the end of their flight, the difficulties attendant on descending at the right place and at the right moment. To be carried too far would mean serious trouble in getting back in face of such a wind. And supposing these troubles were avoided, there were still others attendant on starting the "Shooting Star" in such circumstances, seeing that the motors could not be used to aid the steering. However, fortune was kind, and all these possible difficulties and dangers were surmounted.
They saw no sign of the enemy, and the wind carried them swiftly across the country which Milona had previously traversed in Molkris's barge. They reached the castle while it was still dark, and there he found, anxiously awaiting him, all those of his party whom he had left behind.
The "Shooting Star" was at once brought out and taken a little way on the river, till a clear, open space was gained. Then she rose in the air and floated away, balloon fashion, before the wind.
After about an hour's run the limit of the magnetic influence was passed, and those in charge of her were able once more to control and direct her flight.
By that time morning had dawned, and they were able to look about them. Velmah had agreed to accompany the young Prince at the latter's earnest request. "I shall want him to pilot us back when we come to rescue you," Milona had explained to Mentlah, who had raised no objection to the suggestion.
Ere long another airship was sighted in the distance. She proved to be the "Krastah," with the faithful Kumelda on board, keeping a vigilant look-out for his young master. The two joined company, and set out together on their way to King Amando's capital.
To return to the canoe. In her were now, besides Mentlah and Bruce, Maurice and Krenlis, the latter having decided to throw his lot in with Mentlah for better or worse. They were all in the "men-bat" dress, and looked like a party of Zandalla's myrmidons out on patrol duty. As they reached the lower part of the gorge the wind was less felt, but it was still stormy, and there were not many people about. A few industrious fishermen going off to their fishing ground in the early morning, in spite of the fact that they had probably been out at the fêtes till a late hour, were met with, and passed them with averted eyes and scowling brows.
When they arrived at Velmah's cottage, Mentlah had to confess that he was in somewhat of a dilemma.
"If we land here and attempt to go back the same way as we came," he explained to his companions, "we shall run serious risk of unpleasantness with some of Zandalla's patrols whom we are almost certain to meet. Besides, the barges with our friends on board are not likely to have remained alongside the landing-place. They will almost certainly have moved out into open water, where they would be safer in such weather as this, and less open to sudden or treacherous attack. They may even have gone off to the other side of the lake to the castle belonging to our ally, which I pointed out to you from the cliff behind the tower. Yet if we continue down the river we shall find, when we reach the lake, that it will be a risky matter to navigate its waters in a canoe in face of this wind. If it were not for that—or if it were blowing in the opposite direction—I would say our best plan would be to take to the air and make our way straight across the lake."
"Yet," Bruce reminded him, "when this wind first sprang up you said it was just in the quarter you most desired, and that you would have so arranged matters if you could have had the ordering of it."
"That was because it was favourable for your flight," was the quiet answer. "It means everything to the Prince. Without it his escape would have been impossible."
"That is to say you were thinking only about us," Bruce commented, "and taking no thought as to how you yourself were to get out of the predicament in which your generous aid was certain to place you."
"Well, never mind about that; the question is what are we to do now?" returned Mentlah.
"How easy it would be," sighed Maurice, "if we had one of those little motor flying machines which we had at Nitalda. It would take us all across in a string without any bother—even in face of this wind."
"No good here," said Bruce. "That is one of the peculiarities of the place. None of their ordinary electric motors—small or large—are of any use here."
Which was a reminder to both of them that there was a lot to be told of their respective adventures since they had last parted. But that was a thing which had to be postponed to another time.
In the end Mentlah decided to continue on their way by water. "Maybe we shall come across a larger craft lying moored somewhere," he speculated. "If so we will take possession of her, and then trust to doing our best with the scull."
As they proceeded the stream grew broader and more winding. The sides were overgrown in places with thick beds of reeds, and there were many side creeks or backwaters. In the sky, low down on the horizon, there were signs that the dawn was coming.
Suddenly Bruce, who had turned to look back in the direction of the tower, which they had left far behind them, uttered an exclamation.
Mentlah looked too, and what he saw did not please him; though no doubt it was not altogether unexpected.
"It is a rocket! There goes another! That means, my friends, that our little escapade has become known! I suppose one of the chaps we tied up got loose and gave the alarm. Or some one went up to the roof to look for them and found them lying there. They are signalling to the people at the palace. Of course it was bound to come, but I wish we had got a little farther on our way. We must keep a sharp look-out! There will be boats coming both ways before long. I should like to get down to the lake before the first one makes its appearance, if it's possible."
They set to work and plied their paddles with redoubled energy. The canoe shot forward, the waves raised by the wind sending splashes over her bow. Presently they had reached the last bend in the river. The next turn would bring them in view of the lake, and then they would meet the full force of the wind, from which they had hitherto been greatly sheltered by the banks.
Mentlah here decided to make a short halt. The last reach of the river would be a tough struggle, and it would be better to rest themselves and take a look ahead before entering upon it. He therefore ran the canoe in among a mass of reeds and rushes, and brought up alongside the bank, in such a manner that the craft was concealed from the view of anyone passing up or down the stream. Then he landed and crept up the bank, and raising his head just above it looked cautiously round. Bruce joined him, and was about to stand up to get a better view, when Mentlah pulled him down again.
"Hist! I hear the sound of oars!" he whispered.
Bruce listened, but at first heard nothing except the swish of the wind as it swept through the rushes. But in a moment or two the regular beat of oars fell upon his ears, and the sound grew in volume so rapidly that it was evident there must be a number of oars, and that they were approaching with great rapidity.
The two crept silently back to the canoe, and then they all crouched down, and watched the river through the screen of rushes.
They had not long to wait. Round the bend which they had themselves so lately passed, a large craft loomed in sight. It was Zandalla's barge, and she was sweeping down stream at a tremendous pace. There were two banks of rowers at work, and they were evidently being urged by taskmasters to do their utmost.
It was getting light, and from their point of view, low down among the reeds, the watchers saw the deck showing clear against the slight glow in the distant sky.
"Zandalla and the rest of 'em!" muttered Mentlah. "They're all there—Faronda, Yumonto, and the rest of their precious crew! What a lucky thing our putting in here! They'd have seen us and overtaken us to a dead certainty!"
"Where are they going? What will they do?" asked Maurice. He had good cause for disliking to find himself so near to these people again. The very thought of it, and of the risk of falling again into their hands, made him shiver.
"They're on their way to the palace to raise a hue and cry, and to send out search parties to hunt for you—and for the rest of us," Mentlah answered. "I shouldn't be surprised if this were to precipitate an explosion! Zandalla will be furious, and will be ready to go to any extreme in his endeavours to get you back. He will want to search our vessels—of course, our people won't allow that—they will resist—and—there you are! Civil war!"
"You've summed it up very concisely," said Bruce. "Let us hope you are wrong. It is not a nice picture."
"It is only what was bound to happen. You and your friend should have gone off with the Prince as I wanted you to. Then you would have been out of it."
"And left you and the rest of your friends to suffer the consequences alone! No, friend Mentlah; we have already discussed that point and settled it. Whatever comes out of it, we will all share it together."
"Well! If we stay here till it gets broad daylight, and the search parties are roving up and down, our last chance will be gone! We must be moving, whatever the risk may be!"
Then the canoe was pushed out from the rushes, and started once more upon her journey.
AS the canoe rounded the last bend and came in sight of the open waters of the lake, the adventurers once more stayed their hands and looked cautiously round. The wind had moderated somewhat, but it was still very boisterous, and it was driving before it towards the shore what, for the place, were quite large waves.
It had indeed done more than drive waves before it. Many small craft of various kinds had been torn from their moorings, and were lying scattered along the strand. Most of these were waterlogged, while many were stove in and looked utter wrecks.
The larger vessels, the State barges among them, were riding out the gale at anchor. One, however, was in motion, though seemingly with no particular object. She seemed to be, as sailors say, "standing off and on." Mentlah recognised her at once.
"The 'Myraynia!'" he exclaimed. "Our barge! She is waiting about for us."
"Hurrah! That's good news indeed," cried Bruce. "But—h'm—can we get out to her in this cockleshell?"
It was evidently a risky business, and Mentlah was dubious. And while he hesitated two good-sized boats, driven by crews of several rowers, came in sight on the right, as though making for the mouth of the river. In the first boat were people in civilian attire, while the one behind was filled with Zandalla's soldiers with a few men-bats amongst them. It was quickly obvious that the second boat was chasing the first one; and a little later it was seen that the latter boat was heading, not for the river, as had at first seemed likely, but for the "Myraynia."
"It's our boat," cried Mentlah. "They've been out looking for us. We shall catch her as she crosses the river mouth if we keep straight ahead."
Bruce had brought out his glasses and was looking through them. It was now broad daylight and he could see clearly.
"Yes!" he exclaimed, "there is Mike; I can see him distinctly. And—yes—Tralona and Oleron. You are right. They must have been out looking for us. Shall we shout to 'em?"
It now became a close race. As the leading boat came on, and the canoe cut across and drew nearer and nearer, there were signs of commotion on board. This was partly accounted for by the fact that just then another boat was seen coming from the left to intercept her, while behind it again were larger craft, Zandalla's barge now being amongst them. He had turned back, after going some distance along the shore, in order to assist in the chase.
"We must all get on board before this little lot comes up," cried Bruce, gritting his teeth. "Why, I do believe our chaps are taking us for enemies! What the dickens are they up to? Phew! That's Mike firing at us! What does it mean!"
It was even so. Their own friends on board the hurrying boat were ostentatiously displaying their weapons, and Mike bad actually fired at them with his revolver. By good luck it was a bad shot— perhaps the rocking of the boat threw his aim out.
"Why, of all the idiots!" exclaimed Bruce; and he began shouting to Mike at the top of his voice. But Mentlah gave a short laugh, and commenced hastily to throw off his disguise.
"Don't you understand?" he said. "They do not know who we are! It's no good shouting! They can't hear us! This wind carries the sound away!"
Then Bruce and Maurice remembered what, in the excitement of the chase, they had quite forgotten. In another minute they had also thrown off their dresses, and stood out plainly for what they were. Mike was the first to recognise them. He gave a joyous shout, and called upon the rowers to ease down so as to allow the canoe to come up. Then there came an uproar behind them. Cries of rage, yells of execration from those in the pursuing vessels told that they too had recognised the fugitives.
Zandalla, watching the proceedings through glasses from the deck of his barge, stared at the canoe in amazement. He had been fondly imagining that the four in her were his own people, and he had been applauding them as he had seen them, as he thought, so pluckily closing in on the "Myraynia's" boat. Now he suddenly became aware that the canoe contained instead the very people upon whom he most desired to lay hands. Not only did he recognise his late captive, Maurice, but Mentlah, too, whom he had believed to be dead.
The sight threw him into paroxysms of rage and fury. He shouted and gesticulated, uttering at one moment horrible threats against his followers if they failed to capture the fugitives, the next making the most extravagant promises, and offering dazzling bribes to those who first laid hands upon them.
And all the time the several boats and vessels concerned were tumbling about in the chopping waves, amid the foam and the flying spray, their occupants rowing, splashing, screaming and howling, working hard, and striving like veritable demons.
One of the pursuing boats was upset, and its crew were thrown out; but no one took any notice. The castaways were left to swim or sink as best they could in the tumbling waters, while their fellows pressed madly onwards.
The canoe itself seemed every moment on the point of capsizing. Waves were breaking over her, and the paddlers were sitting in the water she had shipped. But there was no time to bale, no time even to look behind them. Straining every nerve, with the spray flying in their faces, they could only struggle blindly onwards in their frail craft, trying to judge by the sound of the outcries how near their pursuers might be.
The water in the canoe rose higher as more of the hissing wave crests surged up and leaped over her bulwarks. She laboured each moment more heavily, until it became evident that she was sinking under them.
Just then it was, when they seemed to be at their very last gasp, that the boat they were following put back and ran alongside. Strong hands laid hold of the exhausted paddlers, the while that something loomed up between them and their pursuers. This was the "Myraynia," which had also put back, and was now crashing in amongst the pursuing boats, thus giving time for the fugitives to be taken out of the sinking canoe and transferred to her deck. A minute or two later they were all safely on board, shaking hands with their rescuers.
Molkris was standing on deck ready to welcome them, and the rest of their friends crowded round in excited delight at their escape. Milona's followers, however, stared blankly when they realised that the young Prince was not among them. Till then they had supposed that Krenlis, who had not cast aside his disguise, was Prince Milona.
A few words sufficed to explain the true state of the case, and then they all turned their attention to the coming fight.
Mentlah's forecast had come true. The escape of Maurice (he had said) would be likely to precipitate an explosion, and bring about a state of civil war, and that was what had taken place. It had been brought about a little differently from the manner he had expected, and more suddenly, perhaps; but it had arrived all the same.
Two more of the large State barges that had been lying at anchor had slipped their cables as soon as they had perceived what was going on, and were now moving up to support the "Myraynia." One of these was the "Tyraynia," belonging to Molkris's friend Almenda, while the other, the largest of all, called the "Melda"—the name given by Martians to one of their moons—was owned by their ally Dalyndis, of whom mention had been made by Mentlah. His castle, upon the opposite shore of the lake, was well situated for standing a siege, and Molkris and his allies and followers had already decided to retire to it as soon as opportunity offered. They had only been waiting for two things— Mentlah's return and the advent of more favourable weather. The first condition had been happily fulfilled; but as to the second, it was now clear that they must get away at once, whatever the weather risks might be.
Molkris had sent his vessel, stern on, in among the pursuing boats, upsetting a couple of them and spreading a momentary panic amongst the others. Recovering from this, the rest crowded round the barge, and recklessly tried to climb up her sides. Moreover, by this time numbers of Zandalla's followers were hurrying to the scene in other barges, some of them being even larger than the "Melda" herself, accompanied by a sort of "mosquito fleet" of smaller craft.
In a very short time the "Myraynia" and her two consorts found themselves threatened on all sides by forces vastly superior, both in the number and size of the vessels, and in the number of men by whom they were manned.
A desperate fight ensued. Zandalla, exasperated at the turn events had taken, was resolved at all costs to recover his late captive, and punish those who had aided him to escape; while the object of the three nobles arrayed against him was to shake off their assailants, and make their way, in the face of the raging storm, across the lake.
FOR a while the fight raged hotly. Ranged against Molkris and his friends were quite a dozen vessels of a size equal to their own, and a whole host of smaller craft.
But, fortunately for them, the very storm which had at first threatened their safety now proved an advantage, and provided them with the means of escape.
As they fought their way out from the shore the water became rougher, and the leaping waves and raging wind effectually checked pursuit by any but the largest and heaviest vessels. And even as regards the latter it was soon made manifest to those on board them that to continue active hostilities in face of such a tempest was a practical impossibility. Directly a vessel's head was allowed to fall off from the wind she was apt to become unmanageable. The force of the wind, playing upon the high sides, would slew her round, broadside on, and send her crashing in amongst her own friends, capsizing small boats and seriously damaging the larger ones.
The broken water soon became covered with wrecked or disabled craft, and numbers of would-be combatants were thrown out to take their chance of swimming ashore. In a little while the defenders had partly fought, partly manoeuvred their way out of the crowd, and were heading across the lake, with some of Zandalla's larger vessels behind them. Henceforth the affair resolved itself into a retreat and pursuit, in which each side had too much to do, in struggling with the winds and waves, to trouble much about the other.
This state of things, however, had not come to pass without some desperate fighting, and the "Myraynia," as it happened, had been in the thickest of it. It was against her—because she had Maurice and Mentlah on board—that Zandalla directed the chief attack. No less than three times had parties of boarders gained a footing on her deck. In the hand-to-hand fighting which had taken place before they were beaten back the visitors from Earth once more distinguished themselves. Indeed, in one case their combined efforts turned the scale at a critical moment, and when their foes had been finally driven off they received the compliment of a cheer from their allies.
Next to the "Myraynia" the "Tyraynia" had been the hardest pressed, and Almenda and his followers had had to fight fiercely and obstinately before they drove off another party of boarders who had established themselves for a while at one end of their deck. Almenda, in this struggle, had shown wonderful courage and resource, and Bruce and Maurice, who had been able to see something of the affair during a quiet interval on their own vessel, thought that he had shown more than ever that he had a good claim to the device of the bull which was borne upon his flag.
Both the chums had hurts of some kind to show, while Mike had received such a blow on the head from (fortunately) the flat of a sword that he had lain for a while on the deck stunned and helpless.
But in the end the three barges had got away, as stated, and were now engaged in battling only with winds and waves as they buffeted their way across the lake. And as they went onwards they had the satisfaction of seeing the gap between them and their pursuers slightly increase.
The two chums and their faithful servitor were standing together on the deck of the "Myraynia" watching their enemies astern as they laboured after them through the tumbling waves.
"It was a hot fight while it lasted," said Bruce; "I almost thought at one time, Maurice, that they would get you back again, and me with you, this time."
Maurice shivered at the idea. "I had my doubts, too, once," he confessed. "Three of 'em had hold of me, but Micky rushed in at the right moment and went at 'em like a hundredweight of bricks, and gave me a chance to get free. Micky, lad, you're a foine boy—especially in that headgear ye've got on."
Poor Mike, it must be admitted, did not look at his best just then. He had snatched up a very curious-looking piece of old cloth to bind round his head, and it did not add to his beauty. But he was in good spirits nevertheless, and on the subject of the recent fighting grew quite enthusiastic.
"It was ferry fine, look you!" he said, lapsing into his best Welsh accent. "Inteet to cootness, yes."
"What's fine" asked Bruce. "The tap on the head they gave you, or that awful bandage?"
"It wass a peautiful fight what-effer," Mike repeated, shaking his head with conviction.
"I know what Micky's thinking of," cried Maurice. "It reminds him of the battles his Welsh ancestors used to engage in among their native lakes and mountains. I had a picture once, in a book, of the immortal Owen Glendower taking part in just such a scrimmage. When I showed it to Micky he recognised a family likeness to himself, and this tussle has brought it up again, and all the Welsh part of his blood with it. You see! He won't spake Oirish again for a month."
Mike grinned at this badinage, and was about to reply when Mentlah came along and pointed to the building they were making for.
"We shan't be long now before we are there," he said; "the question is, shall we get in without another fight? Zandalla's cue now will be to try to interfere with our landing."
The castle for which they were bound had grown larger to the view, and now stood out against the sky-line as a noble and massive-looking pile. It could be seen that it was built upon a ridge which ran out from the main rocky barrier. On the side of the lake it topped a frowning precipice at the entrance to a gorge through which ran the stream which flowed out of the lake. Upon the other side it commanded a view right over the barrier and far away across the plain beyond.
As they neared this towering cliff the water became calmer. They could see at its foot a narrow entrance defended by great water gates which at first were shut, but soon, in response to signals, opened to receive them.
As only one vessel could pass abreast there was some delay, and this gave to the pursuers the hope of arriving in time to make another attack. On they came, with much cheering and shouting, their long sweeps, or long oars, showing, by the amount of splashing in the calmer water, that they were being worked by men either in the last stage of exhaustion or the highest state of excitement.
But they did not arrive in time. The three barges they had pursued across the lake in the face of such difficulties passed through the entrance, and then the great gates clanged to behind them.
The pursuers were effectually baulked, and gave vent to their disappointment in cries and yells of rage and execration. But shouting would not force the gates to open, nor had they then with them the means of making any serious attack. Zandalla's followers, it may be here explained, were for the most part armed only with swords or daggers, pikes and spears, and such-like weapons. Thanks to their barrier of magnetic rocks, they had never, through long generations, been engaged in any kind of warfare. Their existence had always been peaceful, and indeed it was only of late, when Zandalla's ambition had led him to contemplate warlike adventures, that he had begun to train some of the people as soldiers, and arm them with such weapons as were to hand. Only amongst Faronda's people were any to be seen who were armed with the electric wands known as rambas, which were in common use elsewhere.
Whether Zandalla had in reserve some invention of his own with which he intended in the future to arm his men, or whether he was trusting everything to the mighty airship he had constructed, was not known. What was certain was that the people in the vessels which had come across the lake in such hot pursuit had no means of assailing the grim-looking pile in which the fugitives had taken refuge. For the time being, at any rate, they could only stop outside the gates and shake their fists and shout insults from the decks of their vessels.
High above their heads was a lofty terrace. It opened out of the large hall of the castle, and upon it were now to be seen Bruce and his friends, with Mentlah and some others gazing serenely down at their baffled foes. Within the hall the lord of the castle had assembled his followers and allies, and they were holding a council of war. Thinking that they might prefer to be free from the presence of strangers just then, Bruce had signed to his friends, and they had strolled outside on to the terrace, where Mentlah had joined them.
"What will they do now?" queried Maurice, as they looked down on their baffled enemies. "It doesn't seem to me that they can do much against us here. Even if Zandalla brings a lot more boats and people when the storm is over and the wind has gone down, we could stand a siege here for some time."
"What you say is quite right, but it isn't in that direction that our danger lies," said Mentlah gravely. "It may be that he will not think it worth while to do even that much. He may simply leave these vessels here to blockade us and see that we don't make our way down the river, while he goes to fetch his great airship."
"Ah!" exclaimed Bruce. "I had forgotten that. She really exists, then? She is not a myth?"
"She exists truly enough, and, as you will remember I told you, has only been waiting for that all-important piece of metal."
"But I thought you had managed to seize upon that, and that you gave it to the Prince?" said Maurice.
"You do not understand. Goronto had brought back in the red airship more than was wanted. One half had been taken straight to where the airship is lying. The other half, not being required, was locked up in Zandalla's tower, to be kept as a reserve. It was this last portion, which, thanks to Krenlis's knowledge of its whereabouts, I was able to lay hands on and give to Prince Milona."
Bruce uttered a low whistle. "Phew! Then, if that's the case, this new monstrosity, this great airship of Zandalla's, being now ready for use, may appear on the scene here at any moment within the next day or two."
"That is how matters really stand."
"But," put in Maurice, "I thought—that is, you told me— something about no airships being able to come here."
Mentlah explained: "That is the case as regards your ordinary air craft. But it is believed that the 'Ramaylia' could sail over here because she could mount beyond reach of the forces thrown out by the magnetic rocks. Zandalla had that in mind, and was afraid of a visit from her. But if his airship turns out to be what he has boasted she is, then he will now be able to do the same.
"See!" he added, "Zandalla's barge has put about and is going back. I fear that when he returns here it will not be at the head of a fleet of boats, but in this new engine of destruction. For if he can do what he has boasted of, and can fly over our heads, he has only to send down a few of his terrible fire balls and our fate, will be sealed. It will mean literally raining destruction upon us, for nothing can withstand their power. They would bring this castle about our ears, and send it, and the very rocks upon which it is built, hurtling into the lake below, and we should be carried with it all and buried in the ruins."
WITHIN the great hall of the castle the lord of the place was presiding at a weighty conference. He was supported on one side by the Lord Molkris, who sat, dignified and stern of mien, listening to all that was said. On the other side was Almenda's massive form, his hair and beard showing shaggy and unkempt from the combined effects of the fighting and the wind.
Dalyndis himself was a man of noble bearing, with a countenance that usually bespoke a just and generous nature. But it was now clouded and grave, and there was in its expression a certain subdued fierceness which hinted that he was restive under the conditions in which he found himself.
To these Mentlah now brought his new friends Bruce and Maurice and the rest of Prince Milona's party, and formally introduced them, as it were; for up to then they had been known only to Molkris and his people, and that but slightly.
Mentlah now made a somewhat lengthy speech, in which he explained all that had happened, his meeting with Maurice when he had been made prisoner by Goronto, his own rescue by Milona and his party, and his and their subsequent adventures. And while he talked Bruce was once more struck by the singular ease and grace of his bearing, and the unconscious dignity of his whole behaviour. He noted, too, the respect and attention which his auditors paid him.
Both Bruce and Milona had remarked upon this in their first intercourse with him, but it was emphasised, so to speak, now. These nobles, though doubtless worthy men in many ways, were undoubtedly proud and haughty, and somewhat blunt in their manners towards inferiors. It was the more remarkable, therefore, in Bruce's eyes, that they should pay such respectful attention to Mentlah's somewhat lengthy narrative, and hang upon his words in the way they seemed to do.
When he had finished they turned their gaze upon the two chums.
"So!" said Dalyndis. "You two, then, are really visitors from another world, and Zandalla's statement was untrue?"
Bruce briefly assured him that it was so.
"It is very wonderful," Dalyndis went on, "and at another time we should all feel great interest in such a wonder, and should be glad to have further information. But just now we are assembled upon a question of life and death. If what we have reason to fear is correct, then this is no longer a safe place of refuge for us. We are threatened with destruction, and it may come upon us—so we have reason to believe—at any moment."
"No one seems to know exactly where Zandalla has built this great airship," Mentlah pointed out. "That is to say, none of us know. Therefore we cannot tell how long it will take him to get to her. But supposing that she is hidden away somewhere among the hills outside—beyond the limits of the magnetic force—it will probably take at least a day—possibly two."
Dalyndis bowed his head in assent.
"And then," Mentlah continued, "we may expect that his own people will first be withdrawn. He has no doubt arranged that. They will remain here, and watch that we do not escape, until they receive some agreed-on signal or message. Then they will withdraw, and that will tell us that the danger is coming near. As it may come either by day or night, we must keep a particularly vigilant watch after dark."
Again Dalyndis bowed his head in a curiously respectful manner. To Bruce it seemed rather like one taking orders from a superior than a haughty noble listening to the suggestion of a young friend.
"It is clear," said Dalyndis in reply, "that if all this be true there is but one hope for us. We must watch for the withdrawal of Zandalla's vessels, and then take to the tunnel. By that means we shall have a chance of escaping unseen for some distance into the open country. If it be at night, so much the better; we may be able to get all the farther away. After that we have nothing to hope for save the slender chance of getting beyond the limit and finding there some of King Amando's airships looking for us. But will they come? Will he trouble to hurry to our aid? And will his great airship be now available? Because, if not, his airships themselves will be in danger from Zandalla—to say nothing of the fact that Faronda, as we know, has a number which may be on the lookout, too!"
The speaker glanced inquiringly at Bruce, and every one else looked at him too. Promptly divining what was expected from him, he answered in firm tones:
"I am quite certain, my lords, that you may look with confidence for aid from King Amando if only his son, Prince Milona, has succeeded in returning to him. If he has, I know—I will risk almost anything upon the conviction—the Prince will hurry here at once with all the airships he can assemble, and will search the country on this side for us as near as he can approach. So it was promised at the last moment before he parted from us; and that promise, I feel certain, will be redeemed. Moreover, the one known to you as Velmah, a fisherman, has gone with the Prince expressly to pilot him back to the place where he thinks you are most likely to be found."
"Good! Then we can do no more than keep a vigilant watch, and when we have to move out we shall hope that the Prince will have kept his promise. If he does not, if from any cause he is unable to do so, then, my friends, I need not tell you, our case is hopeless indeed. Nothing will be left to us save to die bravely."
The council then broke up, Dalyndis, as host, courteously inviting the chums to a repast which was awaiting them in another chamber.
"All arrangements have been made for keeping a constant lookout," Mentlah told them as they filed in to the dinner hall. "We must get some sleep now, while we can, for we may have to turn out at any moment. And we are likely to have a rough time of it afterwards if we are chased about the country by Zandalla and his creatures."
The remainder of that day passed, and after it the night, and again the following day, without incident worthy of note. The besiegers patrolled the lake and the river leading from it, and made a few demonstrations; but they were evidently feints intended merely to keep the men employed, and perhaps to induce the besieged to believe that they were the preliminaries to an attack.
The defenders, on their side, did not take them seriously, but contented themselves with seeing that no opportunity was provided by carelessness for their conversion into a successful assault. As the besiegers were to them as six or seven to one, it was useless to think of making a sally and getting away down the river, even if Molkris and his allies had desired to risk it. They knew that even if they had succeeded in getting away they would only be in still worse case, since Zandalla would then have them at his mercy in the open country. Their last hope lay in a somewhat different plan.
By the time the second night came traces of the storm had passed away. The weather had become calmer, only a light breeze blowing, but it was still from the same quarter. As night fell there were two moons overhead. They shone together till a little after midnight, when both set almost about the same time far apart on the horizon. There were then left some three or four hours of darkness before the dawn, and this was the most anxious time of all for the besieged. Their leaders believed that if Zandalla's big airship was not altogether a myth he was not likely to longer postpone his expected visit: and the sequel proved that they were right.
Shortly after the moons had disappeared the sound of muffled oars was heard below, and men presently came up from the lower ramparts with the news that the enemy's vessels were stealing away.
Bruce and his chum were on the upper terrace, with Tralona, Myontis, and the rest of Prince Milona's party awaiting the expected signal to depart. They were straining their eyes trying to pierce the darkness for some sign of their foes, and meantime watching with interested curiosity certain final proceedings on the part of their friends. These consisted in placing about on the towers and battlements a number of dummy figures, which the men had been amusing themselves by making during the preceding day. The object was to deceive the enemy for a while in case searchlights should be suddenly turned upon the castle walls.
As Maurice looked out in the direction of the country beyond the barrier he was surprised to see a small but bright light which flashed out several times and then disappeared again. He spoke of it to Bruce, and then to Mentlah, who had just joined them, and a moment or two later it was seen again. It flashed four times in a peculiar manner, and at once Mentlah became very excited.
"It is Velmah!" he exclaimed. "That is his signal. Give me a lantern, some one." One was thrust into his hands—for almost every other man had now been provided with one—and with it he made signals in return. These were answered, and it was seen that the one who bore the strange light could not be far off. More signals were exchanged, and a few minutes later two black shapes appeared just above the battlements, and finally landed beside Mentlah.
"Velmah!" cried Mentlah, with manifest delight.
"—and Milona," said the other figure, throwing off his mask; for the arrivals were indeed these two in their "bat" dresses. "I have kept my promise, my friends, and come back to see if I can help you. Velmah has, I see, guided me cleverly to the very place. I've come to tell you that our airships—all King Amando's great fleet—are yonder, waiting for you if you can reach them. If not, they are ready to send an armed force by road or river strong enough to drive off your enemies."
A cheer greeted this announcement, and Milona's friends gathered round to welcome him.
"And the 'Ramaylia'?" asked Mentlah, anxiously.
"Thanks to your gift, my friend, she is coming too. She was nearly ready when we left, but not quite. I knew it would not be safe to lose a moment, so we came away at once, and she will follow us with the King." There was another cheer, which was broken in upon by the arrival on the scene of the three leaders. The news was briefly imparted to them, and they gravely greeted the bringer of it and thanked him.
"But it will not be right to deceive you, Prince," said Dalyndis. "Our position is a desperate one if Zandalla arrives in his big airship to-night, as we now fear. I could wish that you had not returned to share our danger, since we should have tried to find our way to you just the same. But since you are here, and cannot return the way you came (for the wind would be against you), we can only say how we appreciate your brave and courageous self- sacrifice in venturing here. There is no time to say more now. It is our opinion, the enemy's boats having withdrawn, that an attack is to be made by the new airship before dawn, and our only chance in such a case will lie in our being then far away."
"But, if Zandalla comes in his new airship, as you expect, surely his searchlights will reveal your movements? He will see you escaping?"
"Not so, Prince," was the answer. "We shall depart through a secret tunnel-way which even he does not know of. It runs out to within a mile or less of where your airships, as I gather, are waiting. Therein lies our last chance. If we attempted to get away above ground he would see us, as you say; but we hope by this ruse to completely deceive him. He may destroy my castle— that cannot be helped now—and we hope he will think he has destroyed us with it, while in reality we shall be far away and shall be protected by being underground. Our hope is, you will perceive, that he may believe he has killed us all, for then he will not trouble to watch the open country we must traverse before we can reach your waiting airships!"
WITHIN a few minutes the order was given for the start. The whole party left the upper building, and, descending the interior flights of stairs, reached at last a cavern deep down below the foundations of the castle. Here was a cleverly concealed doorway which opened on to some more steps, leading in turn to a spacious underground tunnel.
"The existence of this tunnel," Mentlah explained, "was unknown even to Dalyndis himself until about a year since. It must have been constructed hundreds of years ago. When he chanced upon it it was partly choked up with falls of loose rock from the roof and sides. He had it secretly cleared by a few of his most trusted servitors, and they explored it and followed it out to the very end, some miles away.
"Ever since he has kept its existence to himself, in the expectation that it might be of use in some emergency. And that is what, as you see, has happened."
The door was closed behind them, every precaution being taken to keep it concealed in case of anything unexpected occurring, and then the march through the underground road—for such it really was—began. It was a wide, roomy subway, and the lamps carried by the men lighted it sufficiently for their purpose.
They tramped on almost in silence. Their position was such that discussion could not assist them either one way or the other, and Dalyndis had warned them that in places there were shafts, seemingly constructed for ventilation, through which possible wanderers above might hear the sound of voices.
After what seemed a long and weary time—in reality it was scarcely more than an hour—the leaders called a halt. They had reached a place where there was a side gallery leading to an opening, and the leaders desired to reconnoitre.
The Prince and his immediate friends were invited to join the little party, who crept cautiously out of an entrance which opened into a cavern near the top of a small eminence crowned by trees and bushes. Here, well hidden in case any flashlights should come that way, they peered through the screen of bushes.
They were looking, so Mentlah whispered to those near him, back at the barrier, which was now nearly three miles away, with the castle they had quitted perched on the top. But it was so dark they could see nothing at all; and so far, therefore, as appeared, they might have been looking in the opposite direction.
"If what we feared is to come to pass," Dalyndis had said, "now is about the time that Zandalla's visit may be expected. If he does not appear soon he will not be likely to come to-night, and we shall have to reconsider our plans. The withdrawal of the vessels may, of course, have been a stratagem to tempt us to endeavour to escape in the darkness. In that case they might come back, and, finding we have gone, set out to scour the country around here."
It was important, therefore, to ascertain, if they could, how matters really stood, Dalyndis deeming it wiser to waste half an hour in thus keeping watch than to go straight on.
But the half-hour passed without incident, and they were about to return into the tunnel when Mentlah declared that he had seen a quick, darting light high in the heavens, like a flash of lightning. After an interval of a few seconds it appeared again, and this time others saw it too.
"It looks like a signal," muttered Dalyndis. "It may be worth while to wait a little longer."
It certainly was; nor had they to wait long. There were a few more darting flashes in the upper air, and then suddenly a great shaft of light blazed out, coming from above and falling directly upon the ridge upon which the castle stood. It lighted up with the utmost vividness not only the whole pile of buildings, but the adjacent rocks for some distance around. So clearly did the castle stand out that some of the watchers declared they could make out, through their glasses, the forms of the dummy figures which had been left here and there on the battlements like groups of watchmen.
Then, from above, was seen to descend a large ball of dazzling red fire. No doubt it had been intended to fall upon the castle, but the wind carried it too far, and it went out of sight over the lake. A muffled, booming sound, which followed, told that it had exploded somewhere on the other side of the rocky barrier.
Then the blaze of light which fell from above shifted, and another ball of fire descended, this time straight upon the doomed building.
The effect was terrific. Even before the sound of the explosion reached their ears, towers and battlements were seen to rock and sway, and then fall apart and topple over, as though in the throes of some appalling earthquake. Other fire balls came down, some falling amid the ruins and completing the destruction, others landing upon the neighbouring rocks, which were split into great masses and hurled down precipices into depths below.
The ruins took fire, and clouds of lurid smoke arose and floated out in the direction of the lake. Then the light from above vanished, and everything became pitch dark again save for the luminous clouds which arose from the smouldering ruins.
Such was Zandalla's terrible and pitiless plan for stamping out, as he thought, all his enemies at one fell blow. But for the foresight and resource of those he had thus doomed, they would, at that moment, have been lying, all dead men, amid that smoking pile.
It is not to be wondered at that many of the watchers shuddered as they turned away and sought again the concealment of the underground road.
It was well for them that they had its shelter, for a little later their implacable foe was throwing down shafts of light here and there upon the country above, searching out every likely hiding-place, to make sure that no fugitives had by any chance escaped. Little, however, did he dream that sometimes his searchlights fell upon the very ground beneath which they were making their way, unharmed, to join hands with the friends who awaited them.
It wanted yet an hour of the dawn when they came to the end of the tunnel and ventured out to look round. Zandalla had meanwhile satisfied himself that his terrible work had been well done, and had, for the time at any rate, betaken himself and his great new airship elsewhere.
A walk of half an hour, so the leaders calculated, should bring them to the airships, and thus enable them to make a start in them before daylight. But in this they were disappointed. Kumelda, who was in command of King Amando's fleet, had shifted his position when he had seen Zandalla's lights in the distance, and hidden his ships away in a secluded gorge. As soon as he deemed it safe to do so, he sent out scouts to meet the fugitives, but they missed one another in the darkness, and some valuable time was lost in this way.
Hence it was that the dawn had come and the sun was just rising before the last of the fugitives was safely on board and a start was made for home.
So far all had gone well—save, indeed, as to this last short delay, and as to that they were beginning to hope that no harm would come of it.
Prince Milona was once more on board his racing yacht, the "Shooting Star," surrounded by his friends, and, in addition, their new allies, Mentlah and his companions. How good it felt to Bruce and Maurice to feel the Prince's beautiful racing yacht once more bounding under their feet! How exhilarating, after having been tied down, as it were, for so long, to mount once more buoyantly into the air, and skim through it like a great bird upon the wing!
Great was the wonder and gratification of Molkris and his friends, who had never known much about airships—save from hearsay—at their introduction to such a mode of travelling. And unbounded was the joy of the Prince's people at having their King's son in their midst again, and at having been successful in rescuing his friends!
For a time all went merrily. There was no sign of any foe, and they had been three good hours on their homeward way before any cause arose for uneasiness.
Then, however, some shapes appeared in the distance, on their left, coming diagonally across as though to intercept them. A little later they were made out to be Faronda's whole fleet, evidently bent upon preventing or hindering their retreat. This in itself did not greatly trouble them; the danger lay in the fact that it showed that their presence there had been discovered, and that consequently it was likely that Zandalla's great airship would follow.
And this fear was only too well-founded. Presently there could be seen, behind them, another shape, coming along at a tremendous pace, growing each moment larger, until it loomed out in full view. And then they saw, plainly enough, the new wonder, Zandalla's triumph, the "Conqueror," as he had boastfully named her.
Even those he had come to attack, and upon whose destruction he was resolved, could not help gazing at her with curiosity, not unmingled with wonder and admiration.
"Why," exclaimed Prince Milona, "she is really as big as the 'Ramaylia'!"
"She certainly appears so," said Bruce. "But—is she as strong? Would she be strong enough for such a journey as the 'Ramaylia' made to Earth and back? I cannot believe it."
"Nor do I; but she's strong enough to smash up our whole fleet, apart altogether from those awful fire balls. There is but one chance for us that I can see, and that is to scatter, in the hope that some may get clear away."
And that was the signal that was made to the fleet. Kumelda saw that it was the only course, and issued his orders accordingly. Milona had some slight hope that his racing yacht might be superior, even to this great flyer, in mere speed. At any rate it was his duty to try his best in that direction. In the first place he had the safety of his guests and allies to consider; in the second, if he could draw off the big airship, the rest of the fleet might have a chance of escaping.
So the "Shooting Star" flew ahead at her utmost speed, while the other airships turned off to right and to left. This allowed a clear road, so to speak, for the great chase which followed; for it quickly became evident that the prince's yacht had been singled out to be dealt with first. Zandalla and Faronda, who both were on board the "Conqueror," knew the "Shooting Star"—at least, Faronda did—and were aware that the prince would probably be on board. Of course this was only a guess, for it must be remembered that neither of them knew that Milona had been actually masquerading in Zandalla's country. Nor did they know anything about the Prince's desperate flight, carrying with him the priceless metal of which King Amando stood in such need.
As on the occasion when they had chased the red airship, the "Shooting Star" was now urged to the very utmost of which she was capable. And so well did she respond that at first it looked as though she would actually show her formidable pursuer a "clean pair of heels." But this hope only existed in the minds of those on board for a few minutes, then it died away in view of the ugly, incontestable fact that the "Conqueror" had not been travelling at her full speed, and was now gradually increasing it. Soon she began to draw up to the chase, and as she did so she mounted somewhat higher, doubtless with the object of swooping upon the yacht when the critical moment arrived and crushing her.
Then, quite suddenly, the great airship slowed down, turned quickly, and began to mount hastily in the air. That this new manoeuvre really was being carried out in haste was evident from the comparatively small circles in which she swept upwards. Those she had been pursuing watched her in increasing wonder, puzzled as to the meaning of this new development, which was giving away such an advantage to them. What had happened to induce Zandalla to stop the chase at the very moment that he seemed to be sure of his prey?
Milona looked upwards, and scanned the upper air through powerful glasses. Then he uttered a great cry—a glad, joyous cry that spoke of relief and hope—and directly afterwards gave an order that the yacht should reduce her speed. His companions stared up, too, but only those with glasses could see there, far far above them, a something which looked like the merest speck. Whatever it was, Zandalla must have seen it, and had guessed at once that that speck, so high overhead, could be but one thing—the "Ramaylia." After all, then, she must somehow have been rendered serviceable again—in what way he did not know—and she had come upon the scene just as he had the Prince's yacht, and the rest of Amando's fleet, at his mercy. Soon the speck grew till it became clearly visible to all, and then there was no longer any doubt.
And too well Zandalla now knew that he had made a tactical blunder in having been caught by his great foe at so low an altitude. He ought never to have risked chasing these small airships so near the ground. He should have kept high in the air, and trusted to his fire balls. This was why he was now seen making desperate efforts to circle upward, ere the enemy was able to utilise his advantage.
But King Amando was not one to give him time to rectify his mistake.
There was a simultaneous shout that came from almost every airship in the fleet. They had all by now stayed their flight in order to gaze at the coming duel between these two great antagonists, and the shout that had gone up had been a gasping cry of breathless amazement as the speck above grew so suddenly in size that the eye could scarcely follow the change.
The "Ramaylia" really came down in an awful swoop, but she appeared literally to fall. One moment she had been so high up as to be barely visible to the naked eye. The next she fell, end first, on to the "Conqueror," striking her amidships, cutting her in two, and going clean through her as though she had been matchwood.
The two parts of the wrecked aerostat fell crashing to earth, where they burst into fragments like two bombshells.
So perished the "Conqueror" in her pride, and with her the man who had exultingly believed that as her maker and master he might "conquer the world."
THERE was one more surprise in store that day for the young Prince and the two chums who had joined in his adventures. When, some time later, they all trooped on board the "Ramaylia," to be received by King Amando, they were astonished to hear him greet Mentlah by the title of "Prince."
"Prince?—Prince Mentlah—" echoed Milona in amaze.
"Ay, aye," said Amando, smiling. "Not 'prince' only, but 'king,' by rights; for I now know that he is rightful heir to the throne of Mardaylia. Velmah confided the secret to me. Is it not so, my friends?" he asked, addressing Molkris and his fellow-nobles; and they gravely confirmed the statement.
"I saved him, when a baby, from being murdered, as his father was, by Zandalla," Molkris explained. "And I brought him up, under the name of Mentlah, as my ward. He did not know the secret himself till we revealed it to him in confidence quite recently. His real name is the same as that which his father bore— Salandra."
"He has befriended my son and my visitors," said Amando, "and assisted me to repair the 'Ramaylia' just at the right time. In return I place all my forces at his disposal; and I shall not feel contented till I see him in his rightful place as Salandra, King of Mardaylia."
"Hurrah! Long live King Salandra!" cried Bruce and Maurice together, and Prince Milona and the rest of those present heartily took up the cry.
With the deaths of Zandalla and Faronda—both of whom perished in the destruction of the vain-gloriously named "Conqueror"—the most exciting part of the adventures of our heroes ended. Thenceforth King Amando reigned supreme. None challenged or disputed his will, and he was known and acknowledged as the greatest potentate upon his planet.
Under his beneficent sway peace once more settled upon the vast territories he ruled, and his visitors were enabled to make many journeys to various distant countries to "see all that was to be seen," and gratify their curiosity.
It would take too long to describe all the new wonders they witnessed during the interval which elapsed before King Amando was ready to keep his promise and bring them back to Earth. Let it suffice to say that they passed a most enviable time. And when, at last, the "Ramaylia" returned to our globe, and landed them in the same place they had started from, they had no longer the need to resume their former occupation of poor farmers. Thanks to the generosity of the Martian King, they brought back enough to make them—and their faithful follower Mike—"passing rich" for the rest of their lives.
The hardest part of their adventure, they declared, came when they had finally to part from their Martian friends, and, more particularly, from the generous-minded, chivalrous young prince whom his own people knew as Milona, "A Son of the Stars."
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