[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
The gathering of the storm.
On a June morning of the year 1954, while the streets of Sydney are full of rain and umbrellas, in hotel bars, or crouching against the veranda-sheltered walls of sporting hotels, cunning-eyed, hard-faced men discussed the all-important question of whether the Grand National would be run or not.
Cowering under one of the arches of the Lyceum, a wretched, pallid-faced woman droned in a weary, ceaseless monotone the virtues of a bundle of laces that hung limp and unalluring on her outstretched arm. A gust of wind hurrying down the narrow street eddied and drove the thin, draggled print dress against her shivering limbs with wanton devilry; but the men, heedless of the woman’s tuneless plaint, hastened to swell the crowd that stood about the costly temple of the Goddess of Chance. Was she too respectable or too objectionable for the pity of humanity? Possibly both: civilization can forgive anything except a poverty that offends the eye.
Dodging among the nondescript mass who now blocked the pavement in front of Tattersall’s, a wizened, barefooted gutter-snipe drove a brisk trade in race cards: his wares were more up-to-date. So was their cigarette-smoking, foul-mouthed vendor. Mankind is still full of a certain careless generosity for the quick-tongued, evil-hearted imps of their own creation. Later on, when they are old enough to be dangerous, they generally hang them.
In ‘the Rooms’ opinion was divided. Some held that the ‘going would be right enough.’ These last were, as a rule, men who had laid against the ‘pots,’ and who, not having to risk their necks over the fences, exhibited strong indignation at the proposed delay. At last the bell rang, and after a few seconds at the telephone, the secretary announced that the meeting had been postponed. Quickly the news spread to the street, and gradually the waiting assemblage of ‘sports’ melted away into bars and billiard-rooms.
Apparently satisfied with its morning’s work, the rain had ceased. Following the stream, three men drifted out of the rooms and into the vestibule. Having lit cigars, they stood talking to a member of the ring, who chanced to be making his way upstairs.
‘Can I book you another monkey, Mr. Hatten?’ queried the layer of odds. ‘They tell me your mare can’t miss it — bar accidents.’
‘That’s just the devil of it,’ replied Dick Hatten anxiously; ‘if this rain keeps on it’s anybody’s race.’
‘Nonsense! why, it’s just into your hands; she’s fit, and likes mud as well as the best of them.’
‘That’s right enough,’ answered Dick doubtfully; ‘but how long are they going to ask me to keep her fit?’
‘About three weeks, I guess, from the look of it,’ grinned a wiry-looking, sun-tanned man standing beside Hatten.
‘Now, Mr. Johnson, don’t you be spoiling business,’ laughed the bookmaker.
‘Better take the monkey, sir; she’s bound to harden.’
‘No thanks, Cohen; if I want any more I’ll see you in the paddock.’
‘Very good, sir; recollect, it’ll be level money, and not too much at that.’
‘If you have ended, let us go,’ observed a short, well-set-up man, whose white moustache and buttoned frock-coat gave him a certain military air.
‘Right you are, Count,’ said Hatten. ‘Come on, Ted!’
As they stepped into the street, the woman with the laces, like themselves, set free by the stoppage of the rain, held out her sorry barter for life with wistful, shrinking importunity.
Pulling a coin from his pocket, Hatten put it in her hand, muttering apologetically as they walked away: ‘Poor devil! she looked infernally cold.’
‘Mon Dieu! you are a funny race,’ grinned Zenski. ‘You waste a fortune on messieurs the “books,” and then you apologize for giving a starving woman one shilling.’
‘I suppose you have got your bit on Io, Count?’ said Johnson, as they entered the Australia.
‘With all due apologies to my friend here, I have my “bit” on that which with delightful naïveté you name the selling race.’
‘Why, they are dead swindles,’ exclaimed Johnson. ‘You never get more than one trier for your money in one of those saddle-flaps.’
‘In that lies the beauty of these races. I find out which is the animal on which the saddle does not flap. Then I smoke my cigar in peace. I prefer the horse which cannot lose to the grand animal which should have won. But I must write, so au revoir. We meet at lunch.’
Turning into the smoking-room, Hatten and Johnson began for about the hundredth time to win the Grand National. With both it was a subject of absorbing interest, for one of them it was a matter of vital importance; for while Johnson felt, as a sportsman and a Queenslander, the keenest sympathy with the only Northern representative in the race, his companion, apart from his wish to win, had risked all he had in the world on the result of the steeplechase.
Known from Port Darwin to Brisbane, Hatten had come to be regarded as the Admirable Crichton of the North. Creations of his skill with pencil and charcoal looked down from the walls of countless smoking-rooms; his verses were sung round camp fires from Port Darwin to Cobar; and tales of his feats, both over fences and on the backs of buck-jumpers, were as household words in the Great Lone Land of Australia. That he would some day do great things was for ever prophesied. His dark, sun-bronzed face, with its deep-set, penetrating gray eyes, somewhat aquiline nose, and resolute chin, betokened latent force. His useful height and natural hardness of condition, brought to absolute perfection by constant saddle work, gave hostages for the success of any feat he set his heart on accomplishing. In all things the fates seemed propitious, but still the hard fact remained that Dick never seemed to get on. He had done most things, and had done them well, but, success achieved, he seemed to tire, and just when duller men began, with tender care, to move along the ball, at last come to their feet, Dick kicked it to the devil and started after another.
About a year ago a new force had come into his life. Isis Downs had long been a camping-ground of his, its owner, Angus Cameron, and Ted Johnson, his manager, both being old friends. By that part of the world who held that Dick was a stanch believer in the statement that it was criminal for a man to be half an hour in the presence of a woman without making love to her, Edith Enson, the daughter of Cameron’s housekeeper, was quoted as the real load-stone which drew him to the Downs.
In this it was wrong. That Dick had played at the game of flirtation with the girl was probable enough. He was usually playful. But in his case it was certainly not for ‘keeps.’
When, however, Heather Cameron came back to the station, Dick met his Waterloo. At first he was rather bored with this tall, self-possessed girl with hair like the reflection of a setting sun on a leaden cloud, and hazel eyes full of searching light. She had such an irritating way of saying nothing. In her presence he began to realize that he was an utter fraud, and, what was worse, he more than suspected that she had arrived at the same conclusion. Acting on this supposition, Dick, with a successful man’s vanity, endeavoured to set himself right with her. In striving to accomplish this he succeeded in interesting her, and, fired by her attitude of masterly though unconscious inactivity, fell deeply in love himself. Under the influence of the first real passion of his life, Hatten, accustomed to succeed when he wanted to, now began once more to look after the ill-used ball he had so often had at his foot only to kick into the limbo of human failures. Nominally he was a squatter, but as the possession of a small cattle-run on the Roper River, already mortgaged to a Sydney Pastoral Financial Company up to what they considered its full value, presented few if any possibilities, Dick cast round for something more tangible. Here, once more, Fate seemed to hold out a straw; and, with characteristic belief in his lucky star, he determined to grasp it. At a sale of yearlings in Sydney five years ago, he had picked up ‘for a song’ a clean-bred, likely-looking filly. As the youngster ‘furnished’ in the forcing climate of the North, Dick conceived the idea from her general appearance that he had got hold of an ideal ‘chaser.’ A ‘flutter’ which he gave her when two years old relieved his mind as to her pace, and from then till she was five he never let her face a starter’s flag. In the meantime, however, he had taught her all he knew about jumping, and from constantly handling her himself had got her as tractable as a dog. As a five-year-old she began her career over timber, and, in justification of her owner’s opinion and patience, carried his black jacket and scarlet cap to almost unbroken victory from Normanton to Brisbane.
Making allowance for money lost during the meeting, Dick was still a few hundred pounds on the right side after winning the Brisbane ‘double.’ Io was fit and well, and entered for the Grand National, now only about six weeks off, so, determined to follow up his good fortune, he finally decided to bring the mare to Sydney.
‘I wish you had given her a “fly” for the “double,”’ muttered Johnson regretfully, as he threw away a cigar-butt and began to fill his pipe. ‘As usual, they haven’t bothered to send anything really first-class from Melbourne, and half these local screws look like broken-down cab-horses.’
‘I don’t like doubles,’ retorted Dick sententiously; ‘the “books” are too sweet in laying them. Besides, Heaven knows what they might slop on me for a win under the new rules.’
‘You could walk in on a buck-board.’
‘Don’t be too sure of that, Ted; it’s easy to be king in one’s own backyard. But, hang it all! look at the time; we must run up and tell Miss Cameron the races are put off.’
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 34-40