Book 4, chapter 22 [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 XXII.

An alternative.

Led by Dromeroff, the Mongol columns resumed their march on Brisbane the day after the battle. Had the defeat been less than a rout, the Commander-in-Chief would have been the last man to leave his army. As it was, however, he as a soldier realized that the enemy was past all possibility of immediate resistance, and so, as a matter both of duty and inclination, he returned to Charleville.

Bringing all his skill to bear on the matters of its defences, Major Hoffman had converted the Bush town into a formidable fortress, and here, at the headquarters of Leroy, Major Johnson was now being examined by the General, in the presence of Wang, Hoffman, and such staff-officers as happened to be in the town.

To Heather Leroy had pledged himself to save the Australian; still, under the circumstances, he realized that the present function was unavoidable, for while his colleague retained his position he was bound, as a matter of example and discipline, to respect it.

Determined to give no hint that might be used against his countrymen, Johnson stolidly refused to answer every question which in any way bore on the national portion of defence.

At first the purity of Leroy’s English filled Johnson with a suspicion that his examiner was one of his own race; but when he observed that his questioner spoke with equal ease in other languages, Ted remembered having heard of the Russians’ skill as linguists, and so thought no more about it. In common with most educated Chinamen, Wang could both understand and speak English; and now, veiling his personal grudge under the plea of the general safety, he expressed his opinion that the prisoner, being useless as a means of gaining information, must be shot, to prevent the possibility of his carrying any away in the event of his escape. Still treating his colleague with all respect, Leroy retorted that, as the military head, he considered the Australian more valuable alive than dead — at any rate, for the present — adding that he would probably find means to make him speak.

While gratified by the grim possibilities contained in the General’s last words, Wang still urged his immediate execution; but, rising, Leroy remarked, ‘I will be answerable alike for his safety and punishment,’ and, as a sign that the examination was at an end, ordered the guard to remove the prisoner.

While Johnson was under examination, Count Zenski had taken the opportunity of calling on Heather Cameron. After careful weighing, the old diplomat had decided to try and utilize Johnson as a means of disposing of the chief obstacle to his present plans and future hopes; and so, with this end in view, he now approached the woman of whom he wished to rid himself.

The room in which the Count found himself was more than semi-Eastern in its rich, almost barbaric, hangings and grotesquely-carved belongings; but the suggestion of heaviness was removed by the masses of flowers which rose, above green under-growths of cunningly-set shrubs, from the polished surface of a floor littered here and there with delicately-woven mats.

Here, guarded by men of Leroy’s own regiment, and waited on by women of her own race, Heather had lived since her arrival in Charleville. Determined to do honour to the woman he loved, Leroy had taxed all his resources in providing a regal temple for his idol; but, striking as all this magnificence was, Heather had accepted it without comment, and now lived among it without ever noting that it existed. The mind only takes heed of the surroundings when graver issues are vanishing from the mental vision. In cases such as Heather’s, the contemplation of brain-created pictures leaves scant room for the recognition of mere externals.

The woman who rose to receive the Count showed little evidence in face or form of the sorrow which now was always her companion. Constitutionally perfect, her body still refused to reproduce the agony of its mental part; and so, as Zenski bowed over the cool, firm hand, he feared, because he saw no physical evidence to the contrary, that Heather was learning to become content.

Deeply as she resented the old Russian’s treachery, Heather received him with calm politeness; for, being really anxious to see her out of reach of Orloff, the Count had taken the trouble to throw himself in her way lately, and gradually he had brought the girl to believe that, despite his betrayal of her country, he really wished for her escape.

This she now ardently desired; for the more she realized her love for Orloff, the more abhorrent became the logical sequence of this passion. Death or escape were the two alternatives which now hourly presented themselves before her; not because she had any fear that Orloff would ever by actual deed take from her the position of a free agent, but because she had realized unwittingly the great truth, so little reckoned with by human beings, that love is paramount when backed up by the inexorable law of natural affinity.

Ignorant of the fundamental principle, she knew that this deathless desire was mightier than all the resisting powers of her being, and that sooner or later it must hurry her into a union which under other circumstances would be a consummation holy in its natural fitness, but which in the light of late events could only cover her with a mantle of self-contempt and shame so black that she must lose herself for ever in its folds.

Self-destruction was abhorrent to her strong sense of duty, and utterly opposed to the clear, simple faith which adverse storms had only beat against to strengthen; so in her extremity she turned to the prospect of escape as the one means given by her Creator for salvation from herself.

Zenski she had brought herself to look on as the instrument; and so, now that he had come, she frankly let him see that his presence was in a certain sense welcome.

In the conversation which followed, the old diplomat soon discovered that Heather, despite his first impression, was quite as eager to go as even he could wish. Once only doubt of her sincerity crept back into his suspicious mind. Absolutely unselfish, and at all times holding it as part of her duty to sacrifice herself for others, Heather suddenly asked the Count if he thought she was justified in leaving a post where, through her influence, she was able to save, or at least alleviate the lot of many of her countrymen who fell into the hands of the Mongols. The question, though addressed to Zenski, was really one put to herself; but, taking it in its literal sense, the Russian inwardly placed it to the credit of woman’s duplicity. Outwardly, however, his manner was one of respectful admiration, as he explained that General Leroy held her in such esteem that he felt sure the result of her influence would be paramount with him after her departure; while, on the other hand, did she remain, he pointed out as delicately as possible the terrible complications which might arise, only to culminate in worse than death for her, and the handing over of the Mongols to a leader whose lust for blood was now hardly held in check by their present commander.

Knowing how much truth lay behind her companion’s reasoning, Heather soon accepted it, and when Zenski made his adieus, it was with the understanding that she was to do all in her power to induce Leroy to let her go, and failing this, that Zenski was to attempt to bring about her escape with Johnson into the Australian lines.

As the Count passed the building where Johnson’s examination had taken place, Leroy came out.

‘Where away, mon Général?’ queried Zenski.

‘Where you will,’ replied the other.

‘Then come and have one cigar with me,’ suggested the Count, slipping his arm into that of his companion.

As they walked towards Zenski’s quarters, neither man spoke. Leroy was busy thinking out the question of his prisoner’s escape, which, autocrat as he was, could only be safely effected by the exercise of considerable finesse on his part. The Count was also troubled about an escape, but more so still with regard to how best to handle the man who walked beside him. Once in his room, Zenski gave orders that he was not to be disturbed; then he settled his friend in a chair, only a trifle less comfortable than his own, and pushed a cigar-box towards him. A thorough believer in the thawing influence of tobacco, the Count sat back and said never a word, and so silence reigned between these two until the ash on Leroy’s cigar was half an inch long, and Zenski had counted at least fifty perfect rings float upwards from under the grizzled cover of his own moustache. Watching his companion keenly, the old Russian judged that the weed had done its work, and that Leroy was prepared to be in some sort confidential. This being the case, he decided to save him the embarrassment of breaking the long silence, and so he asked, with a show of considerable interest:

‘What have you decided to do with Monsieur Johnson?’

‘Send him back into the Australian lines,’ replied Leroy.

‘But how, mon ami? In the first place, where are their lines? For the present, at least, they have no existence. Then what of Commissioner Wang? Will it be politic by one act both to balk his revenge and to give him such a lever? Doubtless Major Johnson knows nothing that can harm us; still, he is an enemy, and his surrender to his friends may be made much of by a man such as your colleague.’

‘I have realized all you say,’ replied Leroy impatiently, ‘and personally I would hold him as a hostage — at any rate, for the present. But I have promised that he shall be removed from all danger of Wang’s vengeance at once, and, at all risks, I must keep my word in this matter.’

‘Bah! what can Wang do, after all?’

‘Nothing while I am here, but you forget I go North to-morrow, and during my absence many things may happen.’

While his companion was speaking, the same thought struck Zenski; he felt that, if he were prepared to risk it, many things might be accomplished during the week that must elapse before the General’s inspection was over. But even as the vague possibility flashed through his mind, its almost certain annihilation rose before him. Determined to avoid all self-deceit, no matter how alluring, he now remarked:

‘Then, shall I have the honour of watching over Miss Cameron and her friend during your absence?’

‘Miss Cameron goes with me,’ Leroy answered coldly. ‘Not that I doubt your friendship, Zenski,’ he added, misjudging the look on the other’s face; ‘and in proof of it, I want you to help me in getting Johnson away; perhaps it can be best managed while I am up North.’

Taking advantage of his companion’s mood, Zenski now, with diplomatic skill, again attempted to point out the madness of his present relations with Heather Cameron. He showed that Leroy’s personal knowledge of her purity was not enough, and that, in point of fact, he was condemning her to an equivocal position for the sake of his own selfish passion. To the men who surrounded him, his action could bear but one interpretation; and, as Zenski further pointed out, both Leroy’s past treatment of her and his present intention of taking her with him pointed to a relationship between them alike dishonouring to her and ruinous regarded as an example for the men he was trying to wean from their habits of rapine and lust. Urged on alike by self-interest and a certain quaint personal fondness for his one-time protégé, the Count played in turn on all the strings of human passion in his attempts to win Orloff back to the shrine of ambition. At last, because of his love for the woman, Philip wavered. Trained to note and seize every chance in a battle such as this, Zenski suddenly placed an alternative before him. Leaning forward, he looked into his companion’s eyes, and said:

‘If you love this woman, you must either make her your wife or give her her liberty.’

In suggesting that Philip should marry Heather, Zenski knew he was safe. Though, even if he did do so, it would have suited the Russian better than the existing state of things. In Orloff’s eyes, however, the suggestion gained a peculiar significance from the fact of its contradiction to Zenski’ s long-expressed opinion that Heather’s absence was the only sure guarantee for future safety and success. Now that the Count was willing that she should remain under conditions which even he had to admit were not only reasonable, but absolutely essential to the preservation of her good name, Leroy discussed the question calmly, and at last yielded so far as to promise to place the position before Heather during his journey North.

‘You have decided well, Philip,’ said Zenski, ‘and if you hold to your determination, you may yet make me a convert to this most unreasonable deity called Love.’

‘For the sake of it I can do much. God knows I have already done more than He may forgive,’ retorted Leroy; ‘but in this matter of letting her go I can only put my will against all the desire of my being.’

‘Be guided by her in this matter,’ retorted Zenski.

Then, warned by the sudden despair which began to show itself in Orloff’s eyes, he dropped the subject, more than content with having moved the man sufficiently to bring it there.

If Heather was to be taken North, Zenski at once decided that it would be best for Johnson to go also. It seemed to him that Ted would be a constant spur to the girl’s inclination; and, further, that if by some happy chance Orloff did bring himself to let her go, the presence of Johnson would all the more readily suggest some practical means of setting her free.

Even if Orloff, as was most probable, refused to sanction her escape, Zenski felt that with Johnson at hand he might himself devise a means, away from the strict espionage of Charleville, for getting both of them off without even Leroy’s knowledge.

With this part of his scheme the Count had little trouble, for Leroy admitted, almost without comment, all he put forward in its favour. The fact that Johnson would be safer with the General than if left in Charleville was undoubted, and, as Zenski said, the facilities both for getting him away quietly and letting it appear that he had suffered due punishment for his crime would be all greatly increased by removing him up North.

With the decision as to Johnson’s destination settled, conversation began to flag, and now Leroy wished of all things to be alone, so, tossing his cigar-butt into the fireplace, he rose. Satisfied with his night’s work, Zenski made no effort to detain his visitor, for he, too, desired for the next hour or so no better companionship than his own.

Nodding his head, Leroy passed out into the hall, and as the door closed on him, Zenski lit a fresh cigar, and, watching the white ash lengthen, he lazily wondered for what strange reasons men make mistresses of creatures created for, and possessing all the attributes of, slaves.

‘Faithful slaves once in a way, perhaps,’ murmured the Count, as a compliment to Heather; ‘but, mon Dieu! slaves for all that.’

Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 409-418

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