Book 2, chapter 11 [The Yellow Wave, by Kenneth Mackay, 1895]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]

Chapter XI.

On board the ‘Barcoo’.

While sending Io by rail, as being less likely to knock her about, Hatten had booked a passage for himself in the Barcoo, sailing at four the same afternoon.

Johnson, whose leave and loose cash were alike nearly at an end, was going with his chum.

After lunch, while the two men were having a smoke over a last ‘hundred up,’ Mrs. Enson, Edith, and Heather remained chatting upstairs. Ever since she had been led out of the surging mob by Zenski half dazed and nearly mad with vexation, not at what she had done, but at the thought of its possible consequences, Heather had never ceased to bitterly regret her folly. It seemed as though she was fated to bring ruin on all who loved her. Orloff, the hero of her maidenhood, wore for her sake the brand of Cain, and now this glad-hearted, reckless wooer, who had asked in vain for a love not hers to give, had received from her hand defeat in the moment of victory, ruin in the guise of friendship. Yesterday the result of her action had been put beyond all doubt by the committee’s decision. That Hatten had never by word or look reproached her — nay, rather, that he seemed to think all well lost in return for her ill-starred gift — only added new poignancy to her grief. His manner since the race had won her respect; his gallant ride her admiration, for, though it was but an exhibition of physical pluck, Heather’s heart, being that of a woman of flesh and blood, went out to the daring horseman who counted her guerdon a recompense for every loss. Still, while all this was true, she knew that the man in shadow-land held all her love, and so the realization that Hatten had put a construction on her tribute to his bravery totally at variance with her real motives awoke in her a feeling akin to despair. Early taught the bitter lesson of self-restraint, and naturally averse from discussing such a subject, the girl exhibited to her companions nothing save a pardonable feeling of pain and annoyance in being the unthinking agent in losing for Hatten and others so much money. In talking of their friend’s departure, the subject of Io’s defeat again came up.

‘I am sure,’ said easy-going, fat Mrs. Enson in answer to an expression of regret, ‘that the whole thing was sweetly romantic, but, ahem, a trifle indiscreet, my dear.’

‘That I do not see,’ replied Heather; ‘it was purely my affair, mother, and, but for the consequences to Dick, I can’t see what harm there was in it.’

This was really the keynote of the girl’s character. So long as an action concerned only herself, and was in her own eyes harmless, she utterly refused to be the slave of conventionalism. Possessed of no particular force of character, Mrs. Enson naturally took refuge from all her perplexities behind the convenances. With her, to be natural was to be indiscreet, to be narrow was to be respectable. The old lady, like the majority of her fellow-matrons, was the result of an environment peculiar to the British nation.

‘My child,’ she went on, ‘your one care should be to avoid being talked about.’ Then, warned by the flush that came into the girl’s white cheeks that she had touched an open sore, she added hastily: ‘I am afraid both Edward and Richard lost large sums of money.’

‘Pots,’ interrupted Edith.

‘Pots?’ exclaimed Mrs. Enson, putting on her glasses, and gazing severely at her daughter. ‘I was not aware that they speculated with cooking utensils on the racecourse.’

‘Don’t you know what I mean, mother?’ laughed Edith.

‘I regret to say that I do,’ replied her mother sadly. ‘Your slang is a sore trial to me. But if I did not make myself conversant with it, I would be unable to understand much of what you say.’

‘Well, I apologize, mother!’ said the girl, rising, and putting her arm round the old lady’s neck. ‘Why is this poor cat so sad?’

‘There, Edith, that will do; I forgive you. And, Heather, you must not fret about your mistake; I can assure you that everyone I have spoken to is exceedingly nice about it.’

‘See what it is to be a pretty woman,’ murmured Edith.

‘I hope those who have lost forgive me for a better reason than that,’ said Heather simply.

‘I am sure of it, dear,’ interposed Mrs. Enson. ‘Count Zenski told me your action reminded him of the days of chivalry, and awoke his highest admiration.’

‘So I should think!’ exclaimed Edith. ‘Horrid old thing! Why, Ted tells me he backed Satan.’

‘The Count is a perfect gentleman, and a man I greatly admire,’ remarked Mrs. Enson with dignity. ‘He never uses slang.’

‘How do you know, mother? Remember, we don’t understand Russian.’

‘I must confess that, in spite of his cynicism, I can’t help liking him,’ said Heather. ‘I think he shows us his worst side.’

‘Well, you’re both welcome to your opinions,’ retorted Edith obstinately. ‘But I can’t endure him; I hate a man — a man — well, a man who swears in French. He’s always mon-dieuing and pardieuing. I wonder what people would think if Ted or Dick gave the English version.’

‘My dear,’ said her mother, ‘that makes all the difference. No one has a greater horror of profanity than I; but I understand foreigners of the highest rank always make use of such expressions. You will remember, Edith, our late cook invariably did.’

‘And he was a count in his own land,’ interrupted Heather, with a look at her friend.

‘And took all our loose belongings away when he left, doubtless to hang as curios in his Roman palace,’ added Edith, as the door opened and Johnson and Hatten walked in.

‘If you are ready, I think we will have to make a move. It’s after three, and the steamer pulls out at four,’ said Ted. ‘Zenski and the other Russian fellow are down below, so we had better take a four-wheeler.’

Hatten remained silent. He could not help contrasting his own position with that of his friend.

‘Come, on, girls; let us put on our hats,’ said Mrs. Enson. ‘How thoughtful of the Count to come and look after us!’

‘If he can manage yourself and Heather, I will be content with Mr. Dromeroff,’ murmured Edith mischievously.

‘D—— these foreigners, Dick!’ muttered Ted, when the ladies had disappeared. ‘I believe you’re right, they’re worth watching.’

On board the Barcoo preparations for getting under way were everywhere apparent. Dense clouds of smoke poured ceaselessly from the black funnels, and a constant stream of baggage-laden porters climbed up the gangways. In the saloon Mrs. Enson was giving Johnson a bewildering torrent of commands, ranging from a solemn injunction as to how he was to explain the race episode to Heather’s father, down to a charge as to his conduct with regard to sundry setting hens. Meanwhile Dromeroff looked after Edith with an adherence to detail that roused in Ted’s breast a desire to rescue her, even, if need be, over his prospective mother-in-law’s body. On the upper deck Heather and Hatten stood looking down into the dark, forbidding water. On its inky surface things lost or cast away floated in hopeless, purposeless confusion. It seemed to both watchers that in some sort below lay sketched a picture of their lives.

They, too, seemed born for failure — straws cast by fate to wander helplessly over the sea of chance. For the past half-hour few words had been spoken; both were afraid to speak — the one because she feared another avowal, the other because he distrusted his powers of self-restraint.

At last the warning bell rang out, and, turning towards his companion, Hatten took her hand in his.

‘Heather,’ he said huskily, ‘am I still to drift on like one of those goalless atoms — one of a great company, and still alone?’

Looking into his eyes, she answered softly and sadly:

‘Dick, I, too, am searching for my star; will you bear me company?’

It was daring, but it did not miss its mark; the man’s hope died, but in its stead his nobler self arose.

‘Heather,’ he answered wistfully, ‘I have found my star; and even if in searching for yours I lose it forever, I will bear you company.’

Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 105-110

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