[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
A glance that marred a life.
During Orloff’s conversation with Heather, the other occupants of the deck had gradually disappeared, driven to the shelter of the music-room and saloon by the mist which now drifted like a shroud over the sea. As Harden spoke, Zenski and Cameron came towards the group.
‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you, Heather,’ said her father irritably. ‘Orloff, you should know better than to keep her up on such a night.’
‘I fear I am partly to blame,’ interposed Harden, picking up her cloak and throwing it over her shoulders. ‘However, if Miss Cameron will help me, I will sing you “Scots wha hae” as a peace-offering, sir.’
‘All right,’ laughed the easy-going squatter; ‘I don’t suppose any harm’s done, so come on, Philip.’
Declining the invitation, Orloff stood watching them till they disappeared.
‘Mon ami, you look irritated — try a cigar.’
‘Thanks,’ replied Philip shortly. ‘Why don’t you go with them?’
‘Ah, you are both ungrateful and brutal!’ exclaimed Zenski.
‘Pardon me, I thought you came with Cameron.’
‘And if I did, is that any reason why I should go with him to listen to the barbarous war-song of the Scotch?’
Just then a gust of wind swept the mist in a fine shower in their faces.
‘Come into the smoking-room,’ gasped the Count. ‘To smoke in such an atmosphere is a sacrilege.’
‘You are right. Don’t wait for me, Count.’
‘Not so, my friend; if you will stop, so will I,’ retorted Zenski, fearful into whose hands he might fall if without Philip. ‘But in heaven’s name let me get out of this wind.’ He moved off.
Following him, Orloff threw himself into a seat.
‘You are bad company to-night, Philip,’ murmured the Russian, as the other smoked on in silence. ‘Is it an affair of the liver or the heart? If of the former, hesitate not to make me your confidant.’
‘I am all right, thank you.’
‘Then why, my poor friend, do you look all wrong? You English are so topsy-turvy.’
‘I am not English,’ retorted Orloff savagely. ‘Curse them!’
‘And why? Because one from “perfide Albion” has, as my oppressive comrade Baggs would say, “put your nose out of joint”?’ grinned the Count.
‘Don’t play the fool, Zenski!’ said Orloff; ‘what right have you to pry into my affairs?’
‘Pardon,’ retorted the Russian coolly; ‘you forget that you have already made me in some sort your confidant.’
‘You are right,’ replied Orloff bitterly; ‘and the doubts I then spoke to you of have become certainties. To-night I have seen this man exert his cursed power.’
For a little the older man remained silent, then said:
‘If I may ask, in what manner?’
‘Zenski,’ exclaimed Philip, moved by that impulse to speak of his trouble which comes at some time or other to all men, ‘for all your cynicism, I believe you are my friend. To-night I asked this woman to marry me.’
‘Mon Dieu!’ murmured his listener.
‘By the light in her eyes, by the tender inflection of her voice, I knew she was mine; then, as her lips moved, they became cold, and without a word she left me. Turning to follow, I saw her standing beside Harden. “You love me,” the devil said; and she replied in a voice expressionless as that of one repeating a lesson, “I love you.” I swear she was no free agent, yet what can I do? She has no remembrance of the spells this man casts over her.’
‘That is a defect common under certain conditions to all her charming sex, as you will discover later, my friend,’ interposed Zenski sententiously.
Unheeding the interruption, Orloff went on:
‘Distrusting Harden as I do, I feel that her father should be warned; and yet the subject, situated as I am, is so delicate that I fear he may misunderstand.’
‘He would most certainly misunderstand. A man who trumps his partner’s tricks four times in one night, and then excuses his perfidy by saying he is thinking about the rise in wool, is too wanting in every sense of right to grasp your most interesting theory.’
‘Theory! Man, it is a terrible reality!’
‘Even so, what then? Your rival says to the woman you have just asked to be your wife, “You love me?” “I love you,” she makes answer. You say it is a spell. What more is all love? My friend, I myself was once so diseased. One day she mistook another man for me, and married him. Mon Dieu, I am glad of it!’
‘Zenski, I can’t let this girl go out of my life with your cold, damnable philosophy. Her love has grown into my being until it has become part of me.’
The science of surgery lays down that all growths foreign to the body must be removed before the patient regains perfect health,’ retorted Zenski slowly. ‘Philip, what folly is all this, and for a girl unformed, a child as likely to become commonplace as not; why render yourself absurd, striving after the improbable? Believe one who has known many women, seen the sordidness of their passions, the vastness of their betrayals; they are not worth it.’
‘You speak of the outcasts of humanity, the wretched spies whose existence Russian tyranny has rendered possible,’ retorted Orloff hotly. ‘Surely to God you don’t compare this pure, fresh girl with such as they?’
‘I speak about what I know,’ replied Zenski calmly. ‘As toys, they are admirable; as stepping-stones, often swift, but generally treacherous; taken ‘au sérieux, they are impracticable. Good-night, Philip. Remember, the successful soldier saves all his worship for the shrine of ambition.’
Left to himself, Philip Orloff sat looking out into the dark, wind-swept space that stretched beyond the narrow rays of the electric lamps.
Much as he hated Zenski’s cold-blooded summing-up, he still had to admit that in one respect the cynical Russian had put his finger on his own position. Love with him was serious and impracticable. More convinced than ever of Harden’s power, he yet failed to see how he could provide an antidote. To denounce the man could only end in ridicule, if nothing worse, while to warn Heather appeared even more hopeless, looked at in the light of her inability to remember what occurred during her hypnotic sleep. Maddened by the consciousness of his utter helplessness, he experienced the sensation of a man who, bound and gagged, watches the approach of the engine that must inevitably crush him. In his case, however, the agony was even more intense, for he had to stand idly by and gaze, not only on the ruin of his own life, but on the possible wreck of Heather’s as well. For, judged by his standard of honour, the man who would stoop to win a woman by the practice of a power such as that possessed by Harden, was of all men the most unlikely to satisfy when once the awakening took place.
Weary at length with its futile endeavour to work out a plan of escape, Orloff’s brain sought a temporary respite.
Freed from its unnatural tension, it naturally turned to the central idea of his life before Heather came into it. So, tramping up and down the wet, deserted decks, Zenski’s picture of a soldier’s chances rose before him.
Born in a land possessing little real individuality, and, indeed, in most things slavishly imitative of England, Orloff, like most of his fellow-countrymen, possessed little of that intense, if selfish, love of country common to peoples who have created an independent force in the world.
That, if need be, he would fight to defend his birthplace was true. But he had yet to learn that it was the only place worth fighting for, or for which a man can kill his fellow-men without becoming a murderer.
For the present, his chief ambition was to excel as a soldier, and the more he thought it out, the less did this appear practicable in Australia.
Zenski was right: active service alone meant his opportunity.
Possessed of about as much loyalty as his comrades who had rushed to the Soudan ostensibly to aid the mother-country, but in reality because they wanted to smell powder, Orloff felt few scruples as to which flag he followed. And now that his hopes of love seemed drifting to certain wreck, a strong repugnance for the comparative inactivity of Brisbane barrack life took hold of him.
Love gone, what use had he for idleness, save to mourn its loss? And could he sit down like a puling child to weep after this perished thing? The thought was madness. That he would never wholly forget he realized even now, but in the arms of ambition he might gain temporary oblivion, and if not, on the field of battle a soldier’s death.
Carried away by his thoughts, he had taken no heed of time; but now, pulling out his watch, he noticed that all the deck-lights were turned off. Seeing a reflection on the skylight of one of the inner cabins, he walked towards it, and, stooping, he held the dial of his watch close to the glass. Then, remembering it was Harden’s cabin, his eyes, impelled by a sudden fascination, looked down into the brilliantly-lighted cabin.
Suddenly brought in contact with the light, Orloff at first looked only on two ghostly forms, shadowy and indistinct. Then, as the mantle of darkness fell from before his vision, he saw a figure wrapped in white draperies move swiftly across the narrow room. With no wantonness of passion, but rather as one who treads the vales of sleep, the woman walked on to where, imperious yet eager, Harden stood; and now, no longer blinded by the electric rays, Orloff saw that it was Heather.
For a moment he stared as though turned into stone, then his teeth crunched through the amber, and his pipe fell with a crash on the glass. White and trembling, he staggered into the darkness.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 20-26