Book 4, chapter 14 [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 XIV.

The storming of the fort.

As Hatten passed the dining-hall, now converted into a hospital, he met Heather.

Through the half-opened door he could hear an occasional stifled groan.

Looking into the girl’s face, he saw reflected there the manifold pains of others, and hesitated for a moment before he could bring himself to entrust her with one more burden. Quick to notice that something was amiss, she said anxiously, ‘What’s wrong, Dick?’ Then, as he remained silent, ‘Is it anything I can help you in?’

‘Yes,’ he replied, almost brusquely. ‘Mr. Musgrave is dead, Heather, and I want you to tell his wife.’

At his words the girl’s cheeks paled, and she half lifted her hand, as though to ward off some unseen possibility. Then she said, ‘I will tell her, Dick. Good-bye;’ and, passing into the room, she was gone.

On the parapet Hatten found Collins, Cameron, and the other officers.

The Colonel was looking in the direction of the Mongol camp.

Turning to Hatten, he asked:

‘What do you make out of this last move?’

‘The arrival of field-guns,’ muttered the Adjutant, as he dropped his glasses.

‘Then it’s all over with us,’ groaned Cameron.

The others made no reply, for all felt that practically this was what it amounted to.

The arrival of the guns had been most opportune for the Mongol commander. Little as he cared for waste of life, he was just beginning to realize that possibly it would be all in vain so far as taking the Fort was concerned, and he well knew that Leroy would not forgive failure under such circumstances. With the coming up of the artillery, a way was opened out of his dilemma, and now he was busy getting the guns in position to batter a breach in the northern defence line. This accomplished, he had no fear for the result, as, with the reinforcements which had accompanied the siege-train, he felt the assault must prove successful. For the defenders the outlook was utterly hopeless. With their numbers thinned, and hardly enough ammunition to last for two more days, the position was desperate even before the arrival of the artillery. Now it was simply untenable. Melenite bombs would sweep their feeble defences away like straw, and without these aids resistance was not to be thought of seriously. To reckon on relief from the coast they all recognized was hopeless. To stay where they were meant certain death, and to attempt to cut their way out held few possibilities of escape, in a country overrun by a watchful enemy, even if they succeeded in breaking through the besiegers’ lines.

Still, this last alternative offered a chance of escape, feeble as it was, and so Colonel Collins decided to take it.

‘Hatten,’ said he, as the others by their silence signified their acquiescence, ‘I leave all matters of detail in your hands. You will collect all the ammunition and arms not actually wanted, and store them in the cellars under us. Let all the horses be saddled, and when the enemy again opens fire, place the women in the centre of your squadron, and slip out between the two eastern bastions. Before you make your dash, the guns will open a passage; after that your swords must keep it clear.’

‘And you, sir?’

‘I will hold the position long enough to give you a start; then blow up the Fort, and do my best to follow.’

For a moment Hatten hesitated. His first impulse had been to accept a charge which he knew would include Heather. But now all his soldier’s instincts urged him to stay and guard the rear.

‘Let me remain with you, Colonel,’ he said firmly; ‘and put Lieutenant Johnson in my place: he knows the country better than I do.’

‘As you wish, Hatten,’ answered Collins; then, turning to Johnson: ‘You will take command of the squadron. Once clear of the enemy, your Bush craft will be your best protection. Don’t trouble about the rest of us. Your orders are to save the women if possible; if not, to shoot them rather than let them fall into the hands of the enemy.’

As Johnson turned away, Hatten whispered something to the Colonel.

Nodding, Collins called after the Lieutenant:

‘Mr. Cameron will accompany you.’ During this discussion and arrangement of a plan, the old squatter had sat on one of the sand-bags, taking neither part nor interest in what was going on around him. Musgrave’s death had stunned him. The other men, much as they regretted the loss of the President, had too much anxiety on their shoulders for the living to brood over those past human help. But to Cameron this passing away of a man old as himself was fraught with a dour significance. Old men see the reaper nearing themselves with vivid distinctness through the eyes of their dead companions, no matter how they have died.

Roused by the Colonel’s mention of his name, Cameron looked up. Then, following out his late train of thought, he asked:

‘What are you going to do with poor old Bob?’

‘Put him over the magazine,’ replied Collins grimly.

‘It’s the spot he’d have picked,’ muttered Cameron, rising and walking to the stairway. ‘Don’t forget to send his body after his leal old soul.’

Left alone on the roof of the club-house, Colonel Collins again brought his glasses to bear on the enemy.

But now, though the dawn had given place to morning, the gloom had grown so intense that all distant objects were little more than blurs on the surface of the Downs. Above the northern horizon a bank of clouds, flushed with pale-red, rose swiftly in dull, leaden masses through the dense impervious haze which now enwrapped the new-born sun with sable coverings.

Near where the Colonel stood, the flag hung motionless about its staff. But skyward a swift strong current carried the storm-clouds up from their northern fastnesses. Behind the guns he could see the Mongols swarming like ants. Turning, he glanced into the ravine. All the horses were saddled.

‘If the artillery only brings it down, it’s all in Johnson’s favour,’ muttered the Colonel, as he signalled his bugler to sound the alarm. ‘God send it falls in bucketfuls!’

Below everything was ready. Helped by Nugent, Hatten had packed all the explosives so that their full effect would be felt. Johnson and Ryan had seen to the horses.

Warned to prepare for flight, the women had retired to their rooms.

‘We must do our best to help the men who are trying to save us,’ said Heather. ‘Let us take off our dresses and put on trousers and coats. If we ride like the rest, we will have a better chance in every way.’

Suitable as the suggestion was, it was not allowed to pass unchallenged. With some women habit is strong as death, prudery more deeply ingrained than love of life.

‘Horrible!’ gasped one Hughenden matron, celebrated for the generous display of her charms at balls and dinner-parties. ‘I would sooner die than let a man see me in trousers.’

‘My troubles, whether they see me in pants or stockin’s,’ snorted old Margaret, ‘but, bedad, if we’ve got to roide straddle-legs, git me a pair of throusers, Miss Heather, or bad cess to it; it’s rheumatics o’ill be catchin’ in me legs.’

While Margaret was speaking, a knock sounded at the door. Opening it, Heather saw Hatten standing in the passage.

‘Are you ready?’ he asked.

‘No, Dick.’ Then the girl said: ‘Can you lend me a pair of trousers and a coat?’

‘Who for?’ he asked.

‘For myself,’ she answered.

At another time he might have laughed, but now he merely answered, ‘Yes,’ and, running off to his room, got them, and handed them to her.

‘I thought I would be less trouble to you with these on,’ she said simply as she took them.

Then it all flashed on him.

‘You’ve cut the knot about saddles,’ he said in a tone of relief; ‘are the rest going to do the same?’

‘Some of them don’t like to.’

‘Rubbish!’ exclaimed Dick, indignant to think that any woman would not follow Heather’s lead. ‘Tell them the orders are that every woman who is not prepared to do what you have done will be left behind. We can’t risk lives for the sake of a lot of prudes.’

Then, as she turned to re-enter the room, he took her hand.

‘Good-bye,’ he said, in low, almost expressionless, tones; it is only the actor who can afford to let his heart speak in the inflection of his voice.

‘But I will see you again?’ she said, looking into his face. ‘You are to guard us?’

‘No,’ he interposed; ‘Johnson commands the squadron.’

As he spoke the bugles rang out.

Dropping his sabre, he leant towards her. Striking the floor, the scabbard filled the lofty passage with hollow echoes.

‘Twice I have asked for what you cannot give, girl!’ he whispered with fierce yearning. ‘Now let me hold you in my arms, kiss you on your lips, and I will weary you no more.’

For an instant he stood with outstretched arms. Then she stepped forward, and, winding his strong arms about her, he kissed her full on her trembling mouth. Holding her from him, he looked once into her eyes, and then, snatching up his sword, rushed down the corridor.

Determined, now that the guns had come, to carry the Fort before his General’s arrival, the Mongol leader, in less than an hour after the last attack, again opened fire.

With the firing of the first gun, Collins ordered the women and children to be placed on the horses.

‘Where’s Mrs. Musgrave?’ exclaimed Johnson, as he put his charges in the centre of the squadron.

‘Mother was with us when we left the house,’ said one of her daughters, hastening to dismount.

‘Stay where you are, my child,’ said Cameron; ‘I know where your mother is.’

Filled with foreboding, the two girls slipped off their horses and ran after the old man.

Pushing open the door of the room in which Collins — true to his promise — had placed the father of Port Mallarraway, the squatter stepped in.

On a stretcher Musgrave lay, still distorted as when Hatten had found him, but now in place of a rifle his wife rested on his outstretched arm.

On the table stood a glass, some glittering particles still clinging to its side.

Lifting his hat, Cameron said reverently, ‘She has obeyed his last commands.’

Then raising the girls, who had thrown themselves on their knees beside the dead, he led them out and back to where the rest of the sad company waited.

Fierce gusts of wind now swept over the level Downs, and angry peals rang out of the troubled sky, as if in answer to the dull booming of the Mongol artillery.

Unable to judge of what was behind the defences by reason of the dead level of the surrounding country, the Mongol chief was ignorant of the fact that the besieged had horses within their barricades. So to farther extend his line of attack, he still used his cavalry as infantry. Massing his stormers behind the guns, he opened fire with ball on the northern defence line.

Spreading his men as much as possible, Hatten ordered them to lie in the trench. At first it seemed as though the palisade would prove equal to the occasion. An odd post splintered or broke, but as a rule the swinging timber glanced aside and let the balls rush through. With the bastions it was different; already the flying splinters of stone told that the enemy had got the range of the north-western one.

‘I can’t wait any longer,’ muttered Collins; ‘if they disable the other gun, half Johnson’s chance is gone.’

Leaning over the parapet, he gave the signal to his waiting lieutenant, and, forming his men into the shape of a wedge, Ted led them down the ravine.

As the squadron neared the barricade, a blinding flash lit up each rock-bound crevice, and, splitting asunder, the storm-cloud hurled sheets of water and fragments of ice in the faces of the Mongols.

Rushing into the depression below the barricade, the dismounted Kalmucks crowded for shelter, and, swarming round their guns, the men in the bastions fired into the huddled masses at point-blank range.

Caught between showers of hail and bullets, the besiegers broke and fled.

‘Down with the gates!’ yelled Johnson, and, sword in hand, he dashed out of the Fort and up the end of the ravine, followed by his squadron.

Away from their chargers and blinded with the rain, the Kalmucks who attempted to bar the way fell, trampled under the flying hoofs, and before the men who had charge of the horses were able to force them up against the storm, Johnson was through the lines and out of range of the enemy’s carbines.

Side by side, Heather and Cameron had shot through the barricade; but in the wild gallop up the rock-shod ravine, with shots pinging past their ears, and lumps of ice falling about their heads, father and daughter lost sight of each other. Just as he mounted the crest of the gully, Heather’s horse, struck by a chance bullet, staggered on his knees and fell.

Rushing up to the prostrate rider, a Kalmuck officer lifted his sword. Then, as he hesitated for a spot at which to strike, a rush of wind carried away Heather’s hat, and, caught in the hurricane, a cloud of golden hair drifted over the sodden ground at his feet.

Almost as Collins gave the signal for Johnson to make his rush, the enemy, quick to notice the little effect produced by their fire on the palisade, began to shell it with melenite bombs.

‘It’s all over, Hatten!’ shouted Collins above the din of the storm. ‘Call off the men, and let us make a dash for it!’

Shrouded by the rain, the defenders left their posts unobserved, and mounted the horses held for them in the ravine.

As they did, the bombs began to hurtle overhead, and one, striking the palisade, tore a gap in its timber. Through the breach they could see the Mongols rushing on to the assault, hear their yells rising shrill above the wind.

Running into the club-house, Hatten lit the fuse, then, jumping on Io’s back, he wheeled her down the ravine.

Rallied by their leaders, the Kalmucks had now closed in on either side, and as Dick and his comrades charged through the breastwork, the enemy poured their carbines into their packed ranks. With a gurgling cry Collins fell from his horse. On either flank fierce eyes gleamed from masses of wind-tossed hair. In front the lightning played on waving lance-heads and shortened sword-blades. Then, up from the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ rang the word ‘Forward!’ and standing in his stirrups, Hatten buried himself in the midst of the Kalmuck horde.

Clear of the melée, the officer who had found Heather dropped his sword-blade, and stooped over her. As his eyes fell on the girl’s face, an evil smile played about his mouth, and lifting her in his arms, he hurried towards a clump of low scrub that rose above some rocks. As he neared the cover, a roar deeper than the boom of artillery, more awe-compelling than the thunder of heaven itself, shook the ground over which he hurried. Startled, he dropped his burden, and wheeled about to see the club-house lifted from its foundations and hurled in a thousand fragments through the air.

Roused from her stupor by the explosion, Heather half rose; then, as she saw the Kalmuck’s wolfish eyes looking down on her, she staggered to her feet and fled. With a curse the cavalryman sprang after her.

Galloping towards the fight, an officer heard the womanlike cry, and wheeling his horse, rode towards the strange figure who had given utterance to it.

As he rode up, the Kalmuck again caught his prize in his arms.

‘Halt!’ exclaimed the horseman sternly.

Saluting, the Kalmuck answered humbly:

‘A man who was attempting to escape, sire.’

‘Liar!’ fiercely retorted Leroy, for it was the Mongol General. ‘It is a woman!’

‘I was saving her,’ muttered the trembling slave.

‘Liar again!’ thundered his chief. ‘You have deserted your post to destroy her!’

‘Mercy!’ pleaded the Kalmuck.

‘You shall have it,’ said the General grimly. ‘The knout is the punishment for cowards, but I will blow your brains out.’

As he spoke, he drew his revolver and fired, and falling forward, the Kalmuck dropped at his feet.

Unable to understand a word of what was said, Heather, now that her senses were coming back, felt that her rescuer’s voice was strangely full of the cadences of the past. But with the shot consciousness again left her, and she sank to the ground beside the dead man.

Kneeling, Leroy rested the golden head on his knee, and began to open her collar. As he did, the beauty of the face enchained him. Opening her eyes, Heather looked up into his, and then in a moment he knew her.

Dressed as a boy, and changed from a child to a woman, she was still the twin soul for whom he had dyed his hands in blood and forfeited all hope of Heaven’s forgiveness.

‘Heather!’ he exclaimed, holding her face close to his.

Then the look of puzzled wonder rolled away out of her eyes, and she whispered, nestling to him with the trustfulness of a child:

‘Philip, you have come back at last. Oh, my darling! I have waited for you so long — so long!’



Source:
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 324-335

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