Book 4, chapter 18 [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 XVIII.

At the outposts.

About the time that Count Zenski left General Leroy’s tent, Ted Johnson, now a Major, having finished the circuit of his outposts, dismounted, and, unbuckling one rein to give his horse every available inch of foraging room, sat down with his back against the wheel of a gun-carriage. Opening his cartridge-pouch, the Major brought out a pipe and stick of tobacco, and soon, with the briar between his teeth, became absorbed in that occupation, dear to an honest smoker, aptly termed ‘cutting a fill.’

Since the day he carved his way out of Fort Mallarraway, Ted Johnson had seen much of life and not a little of death, with the result that the easy-going manager had now developed into one of those self-reliant, dare-devil guerilla leaders of which the Australian Bushman is the ideal prototype.

Once through the cordon which surrounded the Fort, Johnson had discovered the loss of Heather and his old master. Loyal to the core, he now refused to desert his friends, even though to attempt their recovery promised nothing but his own destruction. In face of the surroundings, the whole decision was a matter of seconds.

‘Go on, Ryan,’ he said to his second in command; ‘I’ve forgotten something;’ and, wheeling his horse, he galloped back.

How he intended to accomplish his task, splendid Bushman though he was, Ted hardly knew. However, that question was settled for him by the appearance of Hatten’s party, followed by a cloud of yelling Kalmucks. As the situation had now become impracticable even in his eyes, Ted wheeled about, and, in company with the last of Fort Mallarraway defenders, struck South. Aided by picked horses in splendid condition, the remnant of Hatten’s Ringers soon out-distanced the pursuing cavalry, and after a march lit by suns of fire, and dogged alike by the Kalmuck horse and the demons of thirst, their Bushcraft saved them.

About Heather and her father there was no room for even the slightest hope, and, despite his love, even Hatten had to admit that to attempt to solve it by remaining in the North was worse than madness. But while both men now recognised that Ted’s first impulse must have ended in useless suicide, Hatten, during that desperate retreat, thought only of revenge. Ted, in common with every man who opposed the Mongols, was filled with the same spirit, but with him, as with many another, there was something beyond. His mate, on the other hand, hugged this one passion to his heart, and sought to live only because life was necessary to feed it.

Not one of Ryan’s party ever rejoined Hatten, and so the few ill-armed, stern-eyed men, fighting every foot of ground with a heroism which made their backward march historic, knew all were dead, and swore that all should be avenged.

During their retreat South, the gaps made in Hatten’s Ringers by Mongol bullets and the manifold dangers of such a march were not only filled, but his strength increased every day; and on this nucleus a stout-hearted, irregular force, formidable in numbers, and splendid in physique and courage, rapidly formed. Powerless to provide them with orthodox weapons, their leader fell back on his original inspiration, and armed them — or, rather, told them to arm themselves — with shear-blade lances. At the head of these natural soldiers, Hatten and Johnson eventually reached the Roma-Brisbane railway, to find that on its southern side a force was concentrating to take the field against the Mongols. Leaving their men in camp, the two leaders pushed on to Brisbane — Hatten to make every effort to get a supply of carbines and ammunition, and Ted to help his chief, and look after his lady love and her mother.

After parting with Johnson at Cloncurry, Edith and Mrs. Enson had reached Brisbane without adventure. There, however, the news of the invasion soon reached them, and the days which followed were to Edith heavy with almost hopeless longing; for, much as she desired news from the North, she yet felt for its coming a dread before unknown in her joyous existence. The possibility of Johnson’s death awoke in her the certainty that she had never prized his devotion as she should have done, and with this realization, the tender desire which had glowed in her heart when saying farewell at Cloncurry became a living, ever-increasing flame. With bitter self-reproach, she now recalled the many acts by which she had made light of his love, and, stricken with self-condemnation, she most illogically held herself to blame for not having stayed behind with Heather, and shared the fate which she felt certain had befallen both her lover and her friend. This quixotic desire was, however, in no wise held by her mother. That estimable woman, being at a considerable distance from the Mongols, assured her daughter that their friends were in God’s hands, and consequently quite safe; and then, after the manner of certain Christians who cheerfully cast all the responsibility of their fellows on the Almighty, Mrs. Enson, somewhat inconsistently, began to wonder whatever would become of herself if Brisbane were bombarded. In her heart, the old lady really nursed a grievance so tremendous that there was little room in that organ for speculation as to how the coming of the Mongols would affect her friends.

The invasion of these barbarians ‘had put the times out of joint,’ so far as she was personally concerned, not so much by their actual coming, as by the time of it. Their precipitancy had not only interfered with her daughter’s marriage; it had, if nothing worse, put back indefinitely her affair with the Count, and at her time of life this was more than a disappointment: it was a calamity.

Of the Count himself nothing was known in Brisbane, but much was surmised; some few still held to Mrs. Enson’s view — namely, that he was, if alive, fighting gallantly for his dear adopted land. But the vast majority spoke of the leviathan railway director in connection with lynch law, and tar and feathers.

A telegram at last set Edith’s fears at rest so far as her lover was concerned, and, soon after, Johnson’s arrival in Brisbane put the two women in possession of the dread story of the past weeks. Clouded as it was by the realization of her fears with regard to Heather and Cameron, Johnson’s arrival brought back new life to Edith, and as the careworn soldier caught her in his arms, she realized as she had never done before what manner of man this was who loved her.

The times had changed the light-hearted Bushman into the resolute, masterful leader, still as loyal and true, but now a lover after a woman’s own heart — one to look up to and obey, not because he would ever ask obedience, but for the reason that his personality would ever suggest it. For long these two talked on of much that was sad and much that was tender; then, as Johnson rose to go, the woman spoke out in Edith.

‘When are you going to get your new uniform, Ted?’ said she.

‘They’ve got to find us arms before we bother them about that, old woman!’ laughed Ted; and then he kissed her, and went in search of Hatten.

When, after a useless search for arms, the two men again left Brisbane, Hatten had been gazetted Colonel commanding his own irregulars, and Johnson Major in the same force.

At first an attempt was made by certain members of Parliament to give these two appointments to infantry officers, neither of whom could ride, and whose only known qualifications as military leaders were that they could command two or three hundred votes apiece. Realizing, however, the gravity of the crisis, and warned that such an attempt would cause a mutiny, McLoskie put his foot down on the job, and placed their natural chiefs at the head of the Ringers.

For the past fortnight Johnson had scarcely been out of his saddle.

With the first strain, the Australian commissariat service naturally had gone to pieces, and the question of how to feed the men concentrating on the border grew less easy of solution with the arrival of each column. Absolute disbandment, or a reversion to cannibalism, based on the theory of the survival of the fittest, were the alternatives which stared the authorities in the face when Hatten and his Ringers rode into the camp.

The northern districts of New South Wales had sent a squadron splendidly horsed and respectably armed; but these, with a few companies of Queensland Mounted Rifles, represented all the cavalry the allied forces could muster, or, rather, all they could provide with arms. Consequently, superior as these men individually were, they were totally unable to offer a serious resistance to the overwhelming masses of Mongol horse who now scoured the country, cutting off convoys, and attacking isolated parties of Australians who were on the march to join their main body.

Being nearly all ‘out-back’ men, the Ringers possessed revolvers and rifles of their own, and now that they were further armed with Dick’s Australian lances, their value as scouts, or in any operations against cavalry, was considerable.

Brought up in the saddle, inured to danger, and schooled to quickness of eye and hand on cutting-out camps and in branding yards, and accustomed as they had become, while overlanding with cattle or looking for fresh country away on the Western plains, to do with little water and less food, the men who followed Hatten were more than a match for the Kalmucks in Bush-craft, and their equals in skill and endurance. To them the task of providing supplies and guarding convoys was entrusted, and so, both at the camp and during the march on Charleville, the guerilla horse hung like a protecting cloud on the flanks and front of the Australian army.

To-night a portion of them, under Major Johnson, formed part of the advance guard, with orders to feel and keep in touch with the enemy, and Ted had just made a round of his outposts, and was now waiting the arrival of his friend Colonel Dick Hatten.

Thoughts of the woman he loved naturally came to the soldier as he watched the smoke-rings float lazily into the hot, breathless air of the summer night. Ring followed ring in almost unbroken succession, and as he noted their upward flight, the possibility rose before him that he, too, might be as one of them ere another sunset; and then what of Edith? But the man was no dreamer, and, besides, he had grown so used to Death, had met him face to face so often, that he had ceased to regard his horrent front as men less accustomed to such company do. He had a part to play, and, though her voice was a sob when she said it, his promised wife had told him she would sooner mourn a hero than not have known one. Still, to-night, with the enemy in front, and faint echoes of the morrow’s battle even now ringing out from the rifles of the opposing scouts, Ted felt that he would have given much just to hold the girl in his arms once more, just to hear the benediction of her love murmured into his ears — so soon to be deafened with the riot of trampling hoofs and sharp-tongued rifles.

So he sat until the close atmosphere grew chill, and that nameless shudder passed through the air which only comes when the night is dying. Then the sound of horses’ hoofs, followed by a challenge, broke the quiet, and a man rode up beside him, and, dismounting, threw his reins to an orderly.

Rising, Johnson said:

‘Well, what have they decided on?’

Walking out of earshot of the trooper, Dick Hatten replied bitterly:

‘To throw away our one chance.’

‘How?’

‘By fighting Leroy.’

‘It’s risky, I admit; but, hang it all, Dick! we can’t run away from them.’

‘We may have to,’ retorted Hatten. ‘You ought to know better than to talk such clap-trap. This absurd British cheek sickens me; here we are without discipline, short of arms and ammunition, practically leaderless, and miles from our base.’

‘Where the deuce is it, any way?’ grinned Ted.

Ignoring the interruption, Hatten continued:

‘And we are asked to face a picked army, that we, at any rate, know can fight, splendidly armed and disciplined, led by European officers, and in absolute touch with an impregnable base.’

‘Remember, if reports don’t lie, these Chinkies are not quite a happy family themselves.’

‘They do lie!’ retorted Hatten. ‘All this information is a trap, I’ll swear, and we’ll find it out to-morrow; but the chuckle-heads over yonder have swallowed all the humbug Leroy has kindly seen them supplied with.’

‘Was the decision unanimous?’ asked Johnson.

‘Yes, the only one that was. I tried to point out the advantages of retiring, and working our raw levies into condition while we were getting the enemy away from his permanent supplies, but my suggestion was scouted as unworthy of our high traditions. They were only Chinamen, and so must be attacked, or our prestige would be gone for ever.’

‘Then you do think it’s a mistake?’ said Johnson doubtfully.

‘It’s a crime!’

‘Well, we must only do our best,’ replied Ted, who in his heart felt all an Australian’s scorn for a Chinaman, despite the lessons he had learned.

‘Who is to lead us?’

‘God only knows!’

‘What?’ exclaimed his companion, now thoroughly alarmed. ‘Hasn’t that been settled?’

‘Well, no. You see, they weren’t unanimous on that point,’ sneered Hatten.

‘You are joking, man.’

‘It’s all such a farce, you could hardly blame me if I were,’ replied the Colonel wearily.

‘But surely to heaven something has been decided upon?’

‘Certainly, Ted — a sort of go-as-you-please tournament. You remember all the fuss there was as to which colony should provide the commander for the Indian contingent?’

‘Yes.’

‘To-night we have had a repetition of it. As you know, the commandants of the New South Wales and Victorian forces could not leave their colonies. Well, their seconds in command refused to play second fiddle to Colonel Don, our man.’

‘What d——d rot! He’s senior officer in his own colony.’

‘Any way, the other beggars were backed up by their Ministers for War. They’re both soft-goods men, and reckon that neither of their colonies can afford to miss what they term a magnificent advertisement.’

‘Hang it all! they don’t look on it in the same light as a cricketing-tour or a boat-race, do they?’ gasped Johnson.

‘No — as a second Soudan contingent, only localized; and as they still cling to the idea that Leroy and his men are merely improved market-garden chows, each man is simply beside himself to command our army — save the mark! Such little matters as shortness of cartridges and want of discipline are too trivial to consider. You see, according to these sucking warriors, we’re going to end it all in half an hour, and, to help us, the Chinkies, who at their best can only fight behind earthworks, have come out into the open just for us to mow them down, don’t you know.’

‘I can’t understand that move myself,’ muttered Johnson. ‘Surely you’ll admit we’re too good for them man to man!’

‘A lot too good,’ admitted Hatten. ‘And that’s what troubles me. You may be sure Leroy knows all about us, or he would never have risked it. The beggar never means to let us get close enough to do any harm, and reckons the prestige it will give him more than worth the risk.’

‘By God! some of us will reach the yellow dogs all the same,’ growled Johnson. ‘But go on; how did it end?’

‘It all resolved itself, as usual with our politicians and soldiers, into a question of stars and titles. Each Minister felt that a possible P.C. hung to his decision, each officer that a baronetcy and C.B. would probably reward the General of the victorious army. So no one would give way, and to-morrow the troops of each colony will be led by their own commanders acting in unison with each other.’

‘What! three Generals? God help Leroy!’ laughed Johnson.

‘God help us! you mean,’ muttered Hatten, as an orderly rode up with some despatches for his companion.

‘I’ll be back in half an hour, Colonel,’ said Johnson, walking towards his horse. ‘Will you be here?’

‘Yes,’ replied Hatten, as his brother officer cantered away.

Like his friend, Dick had entered upon a new role during the last few months, but with him it had made little apparent difference. He had always been accustomed to a life of adventure and more or less personal risk, and when the time came, it found the man ready to step into his new position without effort.

A soldier’s life such as he was called on to follow absolutely realized his aspirations. For while he had a natural aversion from the professional killer of men, classing him as a butcher without even that individual’s excuse of necessity, he fully realized the nobility of fighting for his native land.

Beloved by the men he had gathered round him, he in return treated them as comrades, who, having tacitly acknowledged him as their leader, were prepared, while calling him friend, to obey him with unquestioning promptness.

Wrapped up as he was, not only in the fortunes of his country, but also in those of his men, the apparently inevitable disasters of the morrow filled him with a feeling akin to despair, and still he was powerless. To speak his thoughts openly would only be to fan the already waking spark of discontent into flame, and Dick was too good a soldier to do that, least of all with the enemy in front.

With him this question of to-morrow overshadowed all else. For Heather, the woman he so madly loved but a few weeks ago, he still felt a tender regret; nor did the desire to take revenge on her murderers even for a moment forsake him; but in this connection a strange thing had happened, for now the desire to kill had in great part taken the place of that love for which he had so long pleaded but never won.

Still brooding on the folly that promised ruin for them all, Hatten remained unconscious of the travail in the east, where now amid waves of blood the sun rose slowly above the radiant horizon. Then above the mutterings of the men a sharp rattle of musketry rang out, as if to salute the waking day, and, shaking off his gloom, Hatten walked to his horse, and, mounting, galloped to the front.



Source:
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 367-379

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