Book 4, 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.

A sacrifice on the altar of ambition.

At daybreak on the morning after his interview with Zenski, Leroy started for Charleville, drawn by an electric engine capable of running up to one hundred and fifty miles an hour, and reached Cloncurry at a little after six o’clock.

Here everything was quiet. The officer commanding reported that the inhabitants, taken utterly by surprise, had offered a sharp but futile resistance; that the coolie labourers had joined issue with his forces; and that, as a natural consequence, the whites were either dead or flying before his cavalry. In the yards at the railway-station a troop of Kalmucks were hard at work handling horses, while the coolies of the newly-organized camp-service were slaughtering cattle and sheep as they were driven in by the various foraging-parties.

As soon as he heard his officer’s report, Leroy ordered him to at once despatch a picked squadron, under the guidance of one of Zenski’s overseers, to Isis Downs. Determined that there should be no mistake, the General gave his orders personally to the Kalmuck officer. He was to bring back all the women he found there unharmed to Cloncurry, as the price of his own head.

At mid-day a telegram came through from Dromeroff, announcing the fall of Normanton and the despatch of a column by rail to Cloncurry.

A message received from Major Hoffman had already described the taking of Charleville. The Major, it seemed, had landed his force in the suburbs of the town before daybreak, and had occupied the railway-station almost without striking a blow.

As at Cloncurry, the Asiatic population turned on their masters the moment they realized the state of affairs, and so rendered all hope of resistance vain.

With regard to the scenes which followed, Major Hoffman maintained a discreet silence, merely stating in his telegram that those who escaped would be certain to spread the news, and that, in view of the fact that the surrounding population was a large one, reinforcements were urgently required.

Fully aware of Hoffman’s critical position, Leroy had already taxed the train-service to its utmost in pouring fresh troops to his support, and the following morning, his mind at rest as to Dromeroff s success, he started for Charleville himself.

As the powerful electric motor drew him swiftly through the flat, lightly-timbered country which lay between Cloncurry and Charleville, the General recognised that, long as his line of communication was, its defence need trouble him little.

On either side of the railroad stretched the grants of Zuroff and Co., uninhabited save by the company’s alien stockmen and station hands. And even beyond this radius he knew that cheap labour principally obtained.

Queensland depended for her brawn and muscle on inferior races, none of which, save perhaps the Japanese, were prepared to fight for their masters. These, Leroy knew, would resist his followers to the last, through their fierce hatred for the Chinese. But as they were peaceful coolies, ignorant of war and totally without arms, their presence caused him no uneasiness.

As Leroy entered the Warrego district, the country became absolutely flat, nothing deserving the name of even a hill breaking the sameness of the landscape.

Here wheat began to take the place of grass, but as its production was wholly in the hands of the Japanese, the increase in population made little actual difference. Round Charleville, however, and along the Roma-Brisbane line, a number of small proprietors made a living either by wheat or vine-growing. These, in most cases, worked their own properties, and so employed little coloured labour.

From these men danger was to be expected, but even from them only after they were supplied with arms and provided with skilled leaders. At present they were no more fit to face Leroy’s machine-guns and automatic rifles than were the gallant Matabeles who fell fighting for their country before the Maxims of the English invaders, who differed only from the Mongols in that they cloaked their designs and justified their actions under the twin catch words of English hypocrisy, ‘God and free trade.’

Satisfied that communication with his base was secure, Leroy still recognized that his front must soon be attacked by all the force Queensland could place in the field. That the other colonies would also send contingents he well knew, but those would hardly arrive before Dromeroff’s columns formed a junction with his own.

In face of the increased numbers and hostile character of the inhabitants below Charleville, any advance, even if reinforced by Dromeroff’s columns, must be made subject to the risk of having his line of communication with the North cut, and so, as all the hope of further surprise was ended, Leroy had decided to form an entrenched camp at Charleville, and there to await both the arrival of the enemy and his own supports.

At about four in the afternoon the special ran into the town. As the train slowed down, Leroy could see from his carriage that the town had been not only taken, but sacked. Above the corpse-strewn ground and blackened, fire-gutted buildings, a heavy canopy of smoke hung. Still, beyond an occasional harsh word of command, and the measured tramp of the pickets, no sound of war fell on the General’s ears. The shouts of the pursuers, and the screams and curses of those who fled, were alike hushed. Leaving the carriage, Leroy walked through the encampment. A believer in deeds, he was more at home amid the action of war than when taking part in its pomp. Still, knowing the value of effect on Asiatics, he was quite ready, as at Point Parker, to gratify his followers’ love of parade when necessary. Now he wanted to judge for himself as to results, and so he came absolutely unannounced.

The encampment in which he now found himself presented the appearance of a collection of small forts. The ‘Kian Ping Sin Chi,’ or manual for Chinese soldiers, ordains that each company of one hundred men is to form its own encampment, which is to be fortified by a trench and rampart. Recognising that under this system the men (who were unencumbered with tents) not only obtained a considerable amount of shelter, but also held a position secure against surprise, Leroy adopted it as being peculiarly well suited to present surroundings. The Commander-in-Chief found Major Hoffman personally directing the erection of the earthworks which were to enclose the camp. The Major, an intelligent-looking, middle-aged man who wore glasses, had been cashiered from the German army for duelling, and now used his skill as an engineer of the first class in directing the wakening intelligence of the officers and men of the Dragon throne.

Apprised of the General’s arrival, Hoffman walked to meet him.

Dropping his hand on his officer’s shoulder, Leroy exclaimed heartily, and so that all might hear: ‘Mon camarade, you have done well! With such officers and such men, I have but to order and it is done.’

Gratified at such words from a man who never depreciated the value of his praise by ‘over-supply,’ Hoffman bowed. Then he said quietly:

Mein Gott, Général! it is easy to obey with only an unarmed mob to dispose of.’

‘Our quickness alone has accounted for this,’ replied Leroy. ‘Now we must be prepared to meet an enemy worthy of our steel. The day of surprises is over; that of action draws near.’

‘I know it, and am preparing. In a week from now, if properly garrisoned, these works will be impregnable, unless the attacking forces use melanite bombs.’

‘Bah! I doubt if they will have enough powder to supply their infantry,’ sneered Leroy. ‘Besides, I only mean to use the works in case of a repulse. We will fight their raw levies in the open, Major.’

As they talked, the two men mounted a railway signal-box, whence they could look over the whole expanse of level country. Already lines of fortification commanding the Charleville-Brisbane Railway, Zenski’s line, and the artesian bore were beginning to rise. Belts of myall and gidyea rose here and there above the dead level of landscape, and along the course of the river barren sand-hills lifted their sun-scorched summits.

‘It is an ideal battle-ground on which to meet green troops,’ muttered Leroy; ‘they must fight with no natural features to cover their retreat or interfere with our advance. What possibilities for cavalry and horse artillery!’

‘With the Northern line in our hands, and the river held as I mean to hold it, our position is secure either as a base from which to strike or a defence to cover retreat.’

‘You are right, Hoffman; but let us not expect retreat.’

‘I do not,’ replied the cautious German; ‘nevertheless, I will be prepared for it.’

‘Again you are right: a leader must be prepared for everything. I leave the question of defence in your hands, Hoffman; and, remember, if I trust much, I expect much.’

Guarded by detachments of Mongols, gangs of Europeans and Japanese toiled at the earthworks; for Hoffman had saved all the prisoners left after the first onslaught, not from motives of mercy, but in order that he might utilize them in the construction of his fortifications. Under a burning sun and kept to their hateful task by brutal overseers, the wounded and heart-broken wretches slaved on without hope, and impotent even to exact vengeance on the destroyers of their homes and loved ones. Here and there one weaker, or perhaps stronger, than his companions sank under his load, and found beneath the bayonets of his guards rest from his dishonoured labour. But, recognising the loss entailed by killing the workers outright, the Mongol officers soon ordered another punishment, and the prisoner who fell to the earth either from exhaustion or a desire for death, was flogged to his feet by their quirts of hide. Reinforced by fresh batches of prisoners brought in by the Kalmuck scouts, and helped by crowds of friendly coolies, the gangs worked ceaselessly, and as the sun, hot and relentless, sloped westward, the hated task of raising up a defence against their own countrymen began to take definite shape.

Keenly as he had looked, Leroy had seen no women among the gangs; but, questioned on the subject, Hoffman admitted candidly that in the attack many of both sexes were butchered. Knowing the wanton savagery of all troops suddenly let loose, Leroy felt that he was powerless. His officer declared that he had done his best, consequently there was nothing more to be said. He might have thought differently had he known that Hoffman, going on the cold-blooded principle that women prisoners were undesirable, had issued an order that no woman was to be made prisoner, leaving all question of detail to his men.

Over an after-dinner’s smoke in Hoffman’s quarters, Leroy heard his officer’s report. The artesian bore included in the lines of defence gave a daily supply of three million gallons of water. In the country already occupied, large quantities of wheat were almost ripe, and would consequently soon be available as a food supply; while cattle and sheep were both easily procurable. Every horse seen had been secured by the small body of mounted men at his command, and now he was in a position to put a considerable force of cavalry in the field when their mounts were handled. Flying columns, each with a machine-gun attached to the engine, had been pushed on to occupy Thargomindah and Cunnamulla, and to hold the South Australian line as far as completed; and detachments of sappers were busy blowing up the Charleville-Roma Railway for as great a distance as circumstances would allow.

‘You have lost no time, Hoffman,’ said Leroy.

‘The surprise was absolute, and I have made the most of it; but the enemy is sure to rally, and I must have more cavalry to hold what I have won.’

‘You shall have them as fast as the trains can carry them,’ replied Leroy. ‘As to our opponents, even if they have horses, they have no arms. For the present, nothing but guerilla operations need be feared from them, and before they can possibly organize, our columns will have concentrated.’

‘When may Dromeroff be expected?’

‘All his infantry and artillery will come on by train from Longreach to Mayne River, and from there along the main line. The cavalry will march from Longreach to Charleville. They are all provided, as you know, with waterproof, air-tight bags, capable of holding full equipment for horse and rider, so there need be no delay even if the country should be flooded.’

These bags, which floated buoyantly with their loads, and could be towed after the men and horses to whom they belonged, allowing them to swim unencumbered, only weighed between two and three pounds each. General Leroy had adopted them, as he held that rivers should prove no hindrance to cavalry who might be ordered to explore land on the opposite side, and who, if unprepared, must suffer great loss in men and horses.

‘Then we may look for them in ten or twelve days?’ said Hoffman, running off the distance on the map.

‘Twelve at most. I leave in the morning to operate from Mayne River in conjunction with Dromeroff. The attack on Longreach should take place to-morrow.’

‘There may be fighting there?’

‘Possibly. The chances are that the alarm has reached them, and the country on the Barcaldine-Rockhampton line is thickly populated. Still, what can they do? Like all the rest, they have no arms and little, if any, organization.’

‘Later a flanking force may be expected, however.’

‘Undoubtedly!’ said Leroy, as he rose. ‘It will entail the leaving of a strong column at Longreach to keep our line of communication with Normanton intact.’

Though night had fallen, the dull sounds of explosions still went on, for Hoffman was destroying all houses that chanced to stand outside his defence lines.

Lighting a fresh cigar, the engineer said: ‘I must go, General; my presence is necessary on the outworks. Do you accompany me?’

‘I have despatches to attend to,’ replied Leroy; ‘when they are written I may follow you.’

Left alone, the General wrote rapidly for a time; then, sealing up his letters, he sat back in his chair, and smoked hard. Now that his work was done, thoughts of the woman he loved filled his brain. Would the Kalmuck succeed in his mission? As a picture of the dangers that lay in Heather’s path rose before him, Leroy cursed himself for not obeying his first impulse, and going for her himself. Now that he could think it out alone, he realized that all would be well lost so that she was saved. But despot as he was, holding in his hand the lives of thousands, he knew that even his power had its limits, and that one false move might break the spell with which he controlled the fierce spirits who fought under him; and, then — well, then chaos.

‘No,’ he muttered as he rose, ‘if only for her sake, I must not now turn back; as their General I can at least protect the woman I love. With my fall she must share the fate of others.’ Reaching the street, Leroy walked slowly on towards the river. He had no wish to rejoin Hoffman; the half-fearful, wholly-hateful glances of the wretched workers scorched him. He had looked on many such a scene unmoved in Asia, but then the prisoners there were only having meted out such treatment as they had often meted out to others. Here they were beings born under the same skies as himself; perhaps among them slaved men who had been schoolmates of his own. One old man had looked into his eyes with a glance of half-recognition that very afternoon as he struck up the arm of a Kalmuck who was cutting the bent, weary back with a bloody quirt.

Now he remembered where he had seen the face; it was years ago in his own father’s house; the old man had patted his boyish head and given him some trifling present. God! it was awful! He was a modern Attila without the old barbarian’s excuse, the wielder of a scourge wet with the blood of men who had called him friend, and blasted by the dishonour of women who belonged to the same race as his own dead mother. Appalled by the recognition of his own baseness, Leroy moved on through the deserted, ruined street. Unquestioned by the pickets, who recognised even in the gloom the tall form of their leader, Leroy reached the river-bank. For a little he gazed into its black depths, then turned away with a shudder. In its foul bed he knew many a woman lay who had sprang into its cold embrace with the bloody finger-prints of the ravisher staining the white freshness of her wind-tossed robe.

Wandering aimlessly and conscience-stung, he found himself at the open door of a deserted house. Without thought or purpose, he walked into the ruined hall, and then, impelled by some strange force, pushed aside a torn mass of drapery and stepped into the room which opened on the farther side.

Hanging from the ceiling, a lamp still burned, shedding a dim flood of light on the bed-clothes and broken furniture, which lay scattered over the floor in hopeless confusion.

The occupants had evidently turned it down when going to rest; possibly someone was sick, and so they had feared to put it out altogether.

Still holding a revolver in his hand, a man lay on the floor, his head split almost to the chin, and across his body a middle-aged woman reclined in a huddled mass. Stretched across the tumbled bed lay two young girls, their white limbs bruised and bloody — in their eyes the print of that despair which flashed through their scarce-opened lids into the faces of their destroyers.

One child’s poor fingers still clutched fragments of white drapery; from the other the spoilers’ lustful hands had torn aside all covering, and now naked and dead they lay before his eyes.

The open door of an inner room told whence they had come and who they had been. Less fortunate than those now sleeping in the ooze and drift of the river, this wife who had fallen asleep in her husband’s arms, and these two winsome maidens, perchance lulled to rest by dreams of love and life, had suddenly awakened to see husband and father cut down by murderous hands, and to feel a breath worse than that of death upon their faces.

Now all was over, for Hoffman’s brutal order had given them the only boon left for such as they to pray for.

Silently Leroy took in the whole fearful scene, and then the strong man covered his face with his hands, and sobbed aloud in unspeakable agony. Ambition, the goddess of his idolatry, had brought him face to face with this supreme sacrifice, and now that he saw the offering which she demanded for her altar, he realized as he had never done before the awful price which must be paid to win and hold her favour.

Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 287-299

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