[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
The Yellow Wave
A cloud no bigger than a man’s hand.
Girdled with flame, and leaving a phosphorescent gleam to mark her pathway, the S.S. Genoa moved swiftly on through the slumbrous Arabian Sea. Night had fallen, and the stars looked down on the silent waters — some fixed and cold, as though weary of their endless vigil over sin and shame, others twinkling and bright, as if for ever winking at man’s impurities. From the argus-eyed Leviathan voices and laughter rose fitfully, as the music of Blumann’s latest waltz died away. On her deck, hidden from the sea by a cunning drapery of bunting, the passengers were now filling in the interval before the next dance after the manner of comrades who have chanced on a good ship and congenial company.
He would have been a sour-souled stoic indeed who could have stood apart with folded arms and pulseless heart unmoved by such a scene of camaraderie: for to-night bright eyes caught from the soft glow of the electric lamps a more alluring radiance, and shapely forms borrowed new and quaint graces alike from the dresses of long-dead queens and from peach-cheeked peasant girls. Though the majority wore fancy costumes, here and there a plain dress-suit gave its wearer a certain conspicuousness from its very simplicity.
Among those thus rendered noticeable was a man who stood speaking to an ideal Marguerite. As he paused the girl looked up at him, half in interest, half in wonder, and Philip Orloff’s swarthy cheek flushed, and, bending lower, he again spoke on in a voice full of anxious questioning. As she listened, a wave of painful unrest fled over the girl’s face, but, heeding it not, he still pleaded on, while, unnoticed, a man garbed as Mephistopheles stood a little apart watching them. Why he had chosen to personate so malignant a spirit was certainly not explained by his figure, nor did the somewhat receding chin and features of almost woman-like delicacy present a better raison d’être. In the bright, restless gray eyes, however, shone a flame, now tender and alluring, and now, as he let them rest on Orloff, almost devilish in its scornful malignity; but beyond an occasional glance, he apparently paid little interest to the two, devoting the most of his attention to the couples who kept passing him in their promenade. As these moved by, his glance fell with a certain triumph of power on each woman’s face, and in nearly every instance, sometimes certainly more tardily than in others, their eyes turned with a strange, fascinated look to meet his gaze. Disturbed in his strange occupation by the band, Mephistopheles turned his eyes towards Marguerite.
‘This is our dance, I think,’ said Orloff, as the girl rose.
‘Yes,’ she replied, laying her hand on his arm; then, with a little shiver, she withdrew it, saying, with painful hesitancy: ‘I’m so sorry; you have made a mistake.’
Following her glance, Orloff saw Mephistopheles looking straight at her.
‘Nonsense, Miss Cameron!’ he retorted sharply, and pointing to his programme. ‘I am quite right, I can assure you.’
Advancing, and keeping his eyes fixed on hers, Mephistopheles coolly remarked:
‘This is our dance, Miss Cameron: am I not right?’
‘Yes, Mr. Harden,’ the girl answered, moving towards him, and totally ignoring her companion.
With a look of malicious triumph Harden led her away, leaving Orloff gazing after them in speechless and puzzled anger.
Unallured by the music, and totally regardless of the delightful companionship to be found on deck, Count Zenski sat alone in the smoking-room, a large and fragrant cigar between his lips.
‘Ma foi,’ he mused, as he watched a particularly large and perfect ring of smoke float gracefully upwards, ‘what fortune to have half an hour with no worse company than myself! It would go hard with me to find better in this ship. How incomprehensibly dull these English are! If in trade, they exude shops; if of the Church, what a wonderful personage is their God, so merciless to the small remnants who are foreign, so prone, at all things English, to, as they have it, “wink the other eye.” Peste, they are bourgeois at heart, every one, utterly ignorant of everything save their own particular shop. And yet I do wrong them; they adore the horse, and let the Jew canaille make fortunes out of their worship.’
It must not be supposed that the Count ever gave these opinions to the outer world. Being a Russian, this would be unlikely; being in some sort a diplomatist, it was impossible. Who or what he had originally been, he and the Czar alone knew. To the English world he was a semi-military-looking man of about fifty, and the managing director of a Russian firm of contractors, with offices in London. According to his own statement, he was travelling to Australia with the twofold object of regaining his health and seeking new outlets for his firm’s capital; but with all his delightful frankness, he omitted to add that the prospect of securing from the Queensland Government the right to construct important land-grant railway lines was the real motive for his voyage.
As a matter of fact, he was now on his way to Brisbane, armed with full authority to undertake this work if able to come to terms with the Government, and posed as a devoted admirer of British liberty as opposed to the slavery of his tyrant-ridden native land.
As he admired with a smoker’s lazy interest the white and gradually-lengthening ash of his cigar, the door opened. With a weary shrug he looked round, then exclaimed cordially:
‘Ah, mon ami, welcome! What! tired of les beaux yeux so soon?’
For a moment Orloff hesitated; then, seeing that the Count was alone, he walked in and took a seat at his table. Accepting a cigar, he sat moodily pulling at it. Meanwhile the Count observed him with a certain friendly interest.
Several things had helped to draw these two together; for, apart from a common tie of blood, Zenski and Philip’s father were old friends. A year ago, when dying, the elder Orloff had given certain last messages to Zenski, then in Sydney, to deliver to his son. This charge the Count had carried out on his return to England, and while doing so, and in after meetings, he formed as true a friendship for the young Australian as his cynical nature was capable of. Utterly bored by his fellow-passengers, who, with perhaps the exception of Harden, held out no possibilities above the commonplace, Zenski turned from their endless apotheosis of brawn, muscle, and horse-flesh to Orloff’s fresh enthusiasm with positive relief. Gradually it struck the Russian that this man, with the form of a Hercules and the instincts of a leader, would be absolutely wasted among the Cabinet-moved dummies of Australian military life. On the other hand, the knowledge Orloff possessed of this very life might, under different conditions, be made the stepping-stone to a post which he could never attain as a captain of the Queensland Mounted Rifles. To that position Orloff was now returning, having qualified himself during the last two years in India and in England for a staff appointment in Brisbane. Bather pleased at Orloff’s silence, for the Count looked on conversation during the best half of a good cigar as barbarous, Zenski watched the firm, dark face, noting with some satisfaction that the heavy moustache pressed over the cigar as though the teeth were set close.
‘I am indebted to a woman for this companionship and this silence,’ he mused. ‘Poor devil! women have done much for Russia; who knows but that this silly miss may save this man from himself and for us, after all?’ Dropping the butt of his cigar into the tray, Zenski said quietly: ‘What will la belle Heather think of this desertion?’
‘What she may think is no affair of mine,’ his companion replied shortly.
‘Ah, you surprise me!’
‘I fail to see why it should.’
‘My friend, you are not yourself. You grow English. Believe me, no woman is worth losing one’s temper for,’ murmured the Count.
‘Zenski,’ replied Orloff, rising and seating himself beside the Russian, ‘I needn’t fence with, you; you know that I love this girl.’
‘Then why, my friend, do you run away and leave her?’
For a little while Orloff smoked on in silence. Then he asked: ‘Do you believe in hypnotism?’
‘I think it possible; do you mean to practise it?’
‘No; but I begin to think it is being practised.’
‘Doubtless; but, my friend, what matter if it is? One way of making a living is as honest as another.’
‘You misunderstand me,’ replied Orloff impatiently. ‘Do you think a man by it might influence a woman against her will?’
‘Ah, the woman is in it, then?’ grinned the Count.
‘Put your confounded cynicism on one side,’ retorted Orloff, ‘and answer me.’
‘I might reply, “I’ll see you d——d first;” but, thanks to my being foreign, and rendered affable by nicotine, I am at your service.’
‘You remember that night when Harden tried his will-power on a lot of the passengers?’
‘Perfectly; and, now that you recall it, his greatest success was scored with Miss Cameron. Am I not right?’ asked Zenski maliciously.
‘Ever since then the fellow has seemed to exert a strange fascination over her,’ Orloff replied bitterly.
‘So this is your trouble,’ laughed Zenski. ‘She seems a willing subject, Philip.’
‘I admit it,’ replied Orloff, throwing away his cigar.
‘Then, my friend, what is there left? Call it hypnotism, if it will break your fall; fight on, if you think the game worth the candle; but, for heaven’s sake, don’t spoil a good cigar for a woman’s whim!’
‘You don’t understand,’ replied the other; ‘I would save her for her own sake, not for mine.’
As he finished, Zenski looked at him in pitying astonishment.
‘My poor boy, you are deplorably ignorant. When a woman wants to go to the devil, never interfere unless you want to let her drag you after her.’ Then, seeing an angry gleam in Orloffs eyes, he added: ‘But from what do you want to save her? After all, is it not a matter of choice; if she prefers Harden, why not?’
Struck by the force of Zenski’s question, Orloff made no reply, for though filled with doubts as to Harden, he yet had to admit that they might, after all, be the creations of his own jealousy. Still, Heather’s manner, so unlike the frankness of a few weeks ago, so full of earnest and wistful tenderness when with him, and yet so wholly subservient to Harden, filled him with dark, intangible foreboding.
Before they had sailed he had asked her to be his wife, and though she had given no definite reply, her admission that she at least loved no one else, and her manner, until that night when Harden put her under the power of his eyes, had made him deem she loved him. Devoted to his profession, Orloff had taken little heed of women before Heather came into his life; but now she had absorbed all the love of his strong, self-contained nature, and to see her thus drifting away from him, not of her own will, but through the volition of another, stirred his soul into madness. Still, he held her bound by no promise, and, as Zenski had put it, it might be, after all, a matter of choice, and if such were the case, what right had he to interfere, or, indeed, to impute any other than honourable motives to Harden?
For his part, Zenski, utterly sceptical on the subject of women, was content to suppose that Heather had tired of his friend, and this being so, he now decided to make capital out of her fickleness. Aware, however, that to continue the subject at once would be both wanting in tact and likely to further anger Orloff, he led him to speak of his profession. Anxious to escape from his own thoughts, and full of military enthusiasm, Orloff eagerly launched into the subject of arms. Knowing that his companion had made a study of Australian defences, and was keen enough to note their utter ineffectiveness, Zenski now began to point out how little honour was to be reaped in a field where active service was unlikely and where Parliamentary influence reigned supreme.
‘My dear Philip,’ said he, ‘you will find yourself as surely bound as Napoleon to his rock. It is improbable that there will be any more goats to capture. And even if there should be, are you sure that you will get a chance? I doubt it. To give you a little illustration: When I was last in Australia, a colonel was asked to resign and again devote himself to making boots. As it happened, he had many votes in the electorate of a Cabinet Minister, so he called on him, and said, “You have taken away my living; you must find me another.” “How?” “Dismiss the lieutenant who is adjutant of my battalion, and appoint me.”’
‘What! did he accept the adjutantcy of the regiment he had commanded?’ exclaimed Orloff.
‘Pardieu, yes! and the cream of the joke is that, when they appointed him, he was totally unfit to perform the duties.’
‘But I have made my profession the study of my life,’ said Orloff; ‘they could never displace me to make room for one incompetent.’
‘So had the man the colonel displaced, my friend,’ laughed Zenski. ‘Now, if you had entered the service of the Czar, how different!’
‘What chances would I have had there?’ retorted Orloff; ‘a stranger, the son of a merchant, how could I have ever hoped to break my way through the aristocratic ranks that encircle the Czar?’
‘Softly, my friend. You speak our language, you are of our blood, and, if you are the son of a dealer, you are the friend of Zenski, also a dealer, if you will, but, for all that, possessed of a voice that reaches as far as most men’s. Then you have learned much that a servant of the Czar should know in these days. No need for such as you to dangle on the outskirts of a palace undermined by plots. Asia lies as a rich and boundless field for the feet of the servants of the Czar, who have strength to tread them, courage to win them, and no weakling scruples as to how they hold them.’
As the Count spoke in quick, low tones, one or two men entered; others, their smokes over, walked out, while, mingling with his words, the music came floating from above.
As one in a dream, Orloff listened. Then, as the Count stopped, he roused himself, saying with a certain air of surprise:
‘I didn’t know you had any influence at St. Petersburg.’
‘Two years ago I had just enough to escape Siberia,’ replied the Russian coolly. ‘To-day, as you suppose, I have, personally, none.’
‘Then, what did you mean just now?’ asked Orloff impatiently.
‘Just what I said,’ retorted the Count coldly. ‘For me the life is impracticable; with you it is different. You are young, strong, and a soldier; I, as your friend, but point out to you a career where you will find unlimited scope for your ambition. Further, I offer to interest myself in your behalf. For, though I am powerless with the Czar, I still have friends who, to oblige the man who acted as a scapegoat for their sins, would be glad to help on his protégé.’
‘It is a splendid future for a Russian, Zenski,’ said Orloff almost regretfully, ‘but I am an Australian.’
Satisfied that he had interested him, and well aware that his one hope of eventual success lay in Heather Cameron’s utter perfidy, the Count left his bread to the waters of chance.
‘Pardon,’ he replied; ‘for the moment I forgot that little fact, my dear Philip.’
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 1-11