[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
In the toils.
On the night after the ball, Heather Cameron sat in a deck-chair looking out on the starlit water. Scattered about the deck or lounging against the railings, groups of passengers discussed the dance with animation born of narrow surroundings and poverty of incident; but the girl took no part nor any seeming interest in their chatter.
Flanked on either side by the wife and daughter of an Australian potentate who had made a fortune and bought a title by aid of his celebrated £5 cases, Count Zenski sat listening with polite resignation to the Knight himself.
Thus surrounded, the unhappy Russian was hearing for about the hundredth time how the Baggs family had been presented at Court, and on what singularly familiar terms the male Bagg chanced to be with a bewildering company of Dukes and such-like.
Just when Zenski had decided to escape, even, if need be, over the body of his tormentor, aid arrived in the persons of Orloff and Heather’s father.
‘They are waiting for us, Count,’ said Cameron, stopping in front of the group.
‘Ah, our rubber!’ exclaimed the Russian. ‘Sir John and ladies, this is most annoying, but these whist-players are inexorable. Can I say more than that the loss is mine?’
Bowing, he walked away with Cameron, while Orloff moved on and dropped into a seat from which unnoticed he could observe Heather.
Where she sat, a lamp cast a soft radiance on the coils of yellow hair that rested upon her shapely head like a woven coronal. Her hazel eyes, looking out from the dead whiteness of her face, scintillated with the brilliance of cunningly-set stones; but her hands lay listless and inert on the long arms of her chair. Not yet eighteen, she had spent the last five years of her life at school in England, and was now returning with her father to keep house on the station where she was born, and to which she was the only heir. During the five months she had spent in London before returning to the Bush, Philip Orloff, also engaged in a short holiday, had met her. To both love was then an unknown quantity, but while in her case it still in some sort remained one, with the strong man of twenty-six it was not so. His heart, till then asleep, woke in the presence of this tall, sun-crowned child, and out of her hazel eyes read a message writ by God, all unknown to herself. And so he loved her, not for her character, for it had yet to grow; not for her graces, for they had yet to bloom; not because she loved him, for as yet love was to her a sealed book, of whose contents she had but faint imaginations; and not, again, for any of those cunning fantasies with which men strive to render love logical, but simply because she was his kindred soul, set apart for all time as his alone. Gradually in the weeks that followed his hand broke the seal of the book she carried fearfully, and page by page, little by little, he read to her its message. And as he read she caught it, at first dimly as a flute played on distant hills, then sonorous as the notes of a time-mellowed organ, Love’s grand, immortal anthem. So her soul awoke, but, as befitted a child, full of wonder and mantled with a tender fear.
On shipboard, cut off from the multifarious distractions of the great city, Heather turned more and more towards Orloff, the strong, but as yet latent, forces within her instinctively attracted by the man’s potent individuality.
Nothing had interfered to check the growth of an admiration which promised later to develop into a passion worthy of his own, until the night spoken of by Orloff to Zenski.
From the first Harden had certainly paid her considerable attention, but as in this regard he appeared thoroughly cosmopolitan, Orloff, too generous to harbour the petty jealousy of a weaker man, felt no uneasiness.
On a particular evening earlier in the voyage the conversation had turned on will-power, and after several had attempted with more or less success to perform the stock-feats common to such gatherings, Harden took the subjects in hand. In his case success attended nearly every effort, Heather Cameron in particular appearing, at least to Orloff, a singularly pliant hypnotic. Accounting for his success by the fact that he had the good fortune to practise on minds rendered peculiarly susceptible by the former experiments, Harden laughingly admitted his inability to perform any save the most elementary tests of the science. None the less, Orloff felt that the man believed more in his power than he wished others to do. Since then, though Harden had given no further exhibitions of his art, Orloff began to regard him with an aversion almost amounting to fear; for while unable to in any way prove it, he felt that the man was gradually exerting a strange, unaccountable influence over the woman he loved.
Harden, whatever he might have thought, affected not to notice the change.
To Orloff, Heather’s manner grew daily more incomprehensible. Gradually the strong vitality of youth began to give place to slow and lingering movements. Her eyes, once filled with a questioning light of the newly-awakened, now wore the puzzled, fearful expression of a being haunted by an unseen yet ever-present mystery. To him she in one sense seemed to cling more than ever, and yet between their lives he was conscious of the rise of an impalpable while impassable barrier.
Not that all this happened at once. In point of fact, its growth was so gradual, that he had never properly realized it until the night of the ball. Now, sitting watching Heather, he felt that he had not guarded as he should this soul given into his hands to guide and cherish; that while he stood by with idle hands, its splendid possibilities were perhaps being rendered inoperative for all time.
He half rose, but again sank back. After all, what grounds had he for such a surmise? Then, as the memory of Harden’s exhibition of power over her at the ball rose before him, he threw all doubts aside, and walked over to where the girl sat gazing out upon the sea.
‘A penny for your thoughts, Heather,’ he said.
As the girl turned towards him, he was conscious that her eyes filled with a look of relief. Getting no reply, he went on:
‘Where have you been hidden all day?’
‘I have been lying down,’ she answered wearily.
‘Why, you look half asleep now!’
‘Do I? I seem always tired here. I wish we were in Sydney.’
Then, appearing to rouse herself with an effort, she said:
‘I hope you enjoyed yourself last night?’
Astonished by the coolness of the remark, in face of her treatment of him, Orloff stared at her in silence. Had she been an ordinary acquaintance, such a calm shelving of the question would have been irritating enough; to be so ignored by Heather was simply inexplicable.
‘Why do you stare at me like that?’ she asked peevishly, as he made no reply.
‘Considering what happened, I wonder you ask.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Heather, this is unworthy of you. Treat me as a dog if you will, but not like a fool!’
Glancing at him in utter astonishment, the girl faltered:
‘Don’t look like that, Philip. How was I to know my question would annoy you?’ Then, as he looked moodily into her eyes, she added, with childish anger: ‘I won’t be treated like a schoolgirl. Go away; I did not ask you to come.’
Nonplussed by a manner so utterly unlike her own, and shocked at the littleness displayed by her affectation of ignorance, Orloff determined to end the matter one way or the other.
‘Why did you give Harden my dance,’ he asked, ‘and leave me standing like a fool, without even a word of explanation?’
Watching her keenly as he spoke, he noticed with a certain feeling of dread a look of utter wonder in her eyes.
‘Whatever are you talking about?’ she asked.
‘Do you mean to tell me you don’t remember?’
‘How can you expect me to remember what never happened?’ she answered in a puzzled voice.
‘Heather, for God’s sake, think!’ exclaimed Orloff, bending towards her. ‘You were sitting in that chair. I was standing beside you. As the music began you rose, and put your hand on my arm — so. Then you withdrew it. Harden stepped up and claimed you; and then, although my name was on your programme, as I explained, you walked away with that man, and left me without a word, without a look!’
As he spoke, the girl listened with parted lips. Once or twice some faint glimmer of remembrance seemed to shoot across her brain. Then only surprise remained.
‘You are dreaming,’ she said absently. ‘Do you think I would treat you like that for Mr. Harden, or any other man?’
Like a flash it struck him she was either mad or under some potent spell.
‘Heather,’ he asked with deep intensity, ‘what power has this man Harden gained over you? For my sake, for your own, tell me.’
At the mention of the name, she again appeared struck by some faint remembrance, but it passed as before.
‘Why do you ask me such a stupid question? Surely you are not jealous?’ she exclaimed.
Comforted by the strain of reproach in her voice, but still unable to account for her strange loss of memory as to what had happened the night before, he asked:
‘Has this man ever put you under the same influence he used that night when he hypnotized you in the saloon? Think well, child, for God’s sake!’
Again the puzzled look came into her eyes, but at last she replied:
‘Promise me that you will never allow him,’ he pleaded, taking the white, listless fingers in his.
‘Of course I won’t, Philip, if you don’t wish it,’ she answered softly.
Then, carried away by a passionate desire to guard her as only a husband could, he poured anew into her ears the story of his deep, strong devotion.
Powerless to resist an appeal backed up by the wakening desires of her own heart, the girl listened to his pleading. At last, in rugged, manly fashion, he asked her to marry him when they reached Colombo. But even as her lips moved to reply, she lifted her eyes, and the word died away in a low, inarticulate murmur.
‘Darling, your answer!’ murmured Orloff passionately. ‘You love me; why hesitate?’
Still no reply came through her white lips.
‘For God’s sake, don’t say I’ve deceived myself! Heather, you love me?’
Rising, she shook her head, and, waving him aside, moved quickly past him. As he turned to follow, he saw they were not alone. Facing him stood Henry Harden, with Heather at his side.
With clenched fist Orloff stepped towards them.
‘You love me, Heather?’ said Harden.
‘I love you,’ she answered, in a strange, expressionless voice.
‘Heather, this is madness!’ began Orloff, stretching out his hand towards the girl.
‘Kindly remember we are not the only people on deck,’ remarked Harden with a mocking smile.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 12-19
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