[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
A peep behind the curtain.
The night after the Grand National Zenski and his friend, Alexis Dromeroff, sat over the fire in the former’s room at the Australia.
‘So the mine is about to be fired, Colonel,’ said Zenski, who for the last half-hour had been a silent but attentive listener.
‘Yes,’ replied his companion; ‘the work Peter left as a legacy is practically accomplished. The path that has taken centuries to tread, and which even in the last hundred years has cost Russia one hundred million pounds, has at last landed us within striking distance of Herat.’
‘And at the gates of India,’ said the soldier, as he rose and walked up and down the room. ‘Zenski,’ he went on, in a voice low, but full of fierce excitement, ‘what a prize lies at the feet of the Czar! Worth all the blood and treasure poured out on desert steppes, eh? — worth as much again!’
‘But that is not India, my friend,’ interrupted Zenski.
‘It is its gate, and, thanks to English statesmen, we are in full possession of the ways which can bring us there quickly, and without trouble.’
‘As a base it would be doubtless admirable, I admit,’ remarked the Count; ‘but we are not exactly there yet.’
‘Not there,’ retorted Dromeroff impatiently, ‘when a Persian army practically led by Russian officers is there? Persia, liable to an attack all along the frontier, already Russianized in great part, and at best an inert mass ready for moulding as we wish, will hold it long enough, thanks to England’s policy of masterly inactivity and settlement by commissioners, for us to make our spring at our leisure.’
‘But suppose England alters her policy for one of action?’
‘No fear of that!’ laughed the Colonel contemptuously. ‘Being commercial, they will bargain. But even so, as you well know, the mountain barrier between our outposts and Herat is all moonshine; nothing more formidable than downs crossed by roads nearly all practicable lies between us and the pearl of the East. When we won Merv and conquered the Turcomans, it meant not only prestige in the eyes of every nomad, but the possession of one hundred thousand of the best irregular cavalry in the world within a week’s march of Herat. They have led the way to India before; as our vanguard, they will do so again.’
‘Skobeleff’s idea; but, remember, he is dead,’ observed Zenski.
‘He is,’ replied Dromeroff sadly, almost reverently; for to him, as to every Russian soldier, the conqueror of Geok-Tepé was a type to follow, a hero to worship; ‘but others are left to carry out his dream.’
‘It appears possible enough,’ muttered the more cautious diplomat. ‘We overcame more formidable difficulties in invading Turkey. The men who forced the Balkans should be able to march over the Paropamisus Downs in face of the Afghan forces, supposing them to be there at all, without much difficulty.’
‘There is no difficulty,’ said Dromeroff, ‘for there is no barrier between Russia and India. The tribes are the least warlike, and the most amenable to our influence; the country is rich, and the road excellent; we have long given up the old hard track, and now can rattle along from the Caspian to Candahar.’
‘From my despatches I understand that the massing of the Army of the Caucasus in the Caspian basin is complete.’
‘The columns that are to invade India,’ Dromeroff went on, ‘will, as you probably guess, march via the Astrabad-Sarakhs road, and the parallel one from Astrabad viâ Meshed. On reaching the Hari Rud at Kusan the Astrabad force will leave the Paropamisus Hills on its left flank, cutting Herat off from India. Arrangements have already been made with the Shah to use the Golden Province as a line of advance and base of operations.’
‘And how about the Indians themselves?’ queried Zenski.
‘They have been seen to. In the bazaars Russian prestige is common talk. Like Shere Ali, they begin to think “the goat attacks, not the panther.” Unlike us, as you know, England has been unable to identify herself with her Asiatic peoples. She dares not let them command her armies as we have done. Into her Civil Service they have certainly been admitted, but at what a sacrifice. Scorned by the members of the caste he has broken, shunned by his English fellow-officials, what a hell is that of the native civil servant! Again, thanks to her system of educating every villager, India is full of native demagogues railing at a Government which has educated, but cannot find billets for them. In such soil our agents have sown a magnificent crop. It is now ready for reaping. The advance of the Cossacks across the frontier will be the signal for a native uprising.’
‘Then you reckon on getting the English army of defence between two fires?’
‘Simultaneously with the rush of fifty or one hundred thousand Turcomans and other Asiatic cavalry over the frontier under the banner of blood and booty, we expect the natives to rise at the rear of the Indus to the cry of “Freedom and revenge!”’
‘Given that the native troops join the mutiny, I fail to see what the seventy thousand English can do even if massed to a man,’ said Zenski.
‘They can die, that is all,’ replied Dromeroff, adding with a certain reluctant admiration, ‘and they will. Summed up,’ he continued, ‘we have an uninterrupted chain of communication from the interior of Russia to the very gates of India. Besides the standing army of the Caucasus, one hundred and fifty thousand strong, we can get support from Odessa to Batoum in one day. With the water way and railroads now completed, we can carry troops from Odessa to Sarakhs in six days. On the other hand, the English, even with the railway complete to Pishin, are still four hundred and seventy miles from Herat. Our line of march is fertile, level and well watered. Theirs is through a country frequently arid, and menaced by tribes as likely to prove hostile as not. Twenty days from our present base will land us under the walls of Herat. It will take the English forty-seven days to arrive at the same point. With India disaffected, Persia under our thumb, and Afghanistan more or less under our influence, awed by our successes, and ever ready to follow the rising star, the fates themselves seem to guide our rush on India.’
‘As a means to an end it is admirable,’ said Zenski coolly. ‘Had the pig-headed English given Constantinople to Alexander, it would have been all unnecessary.’
‘Possibly. Still, remember we are a nation of conquest; and as Skobeleff said, “Without India, all the money spent in Turkestan is wasted, and the hide is not worth the tanning.” Skobeleff merely saw in the invasion of India a means of drawing off the English forces while we seized Constantinople, mon ami. The same reason remains good to-day; is it not so? But what of my old friend Leroy?’
‘Doubtless his letter has told you all that I can say; the authorities at Pekin, satisfied at last that Russia is the Power whose friendship is best worth having, will put no impediment in his way. Our action during the Corean War in ’94, and the late operations on the Pamirs, are bearing fruit?’
‘To a certain extent, yes. Still, there are other and weightier reasons. Doubtless the prospect of our breaking into India is hailed at Pekin with satisfaction as being likely to draw off our attention from their own frontier. They, I take it, judge that we will hold what we win; and as it is a richer country, they naturally conclude that all our serious expansion will take place southward. This practically means the removal of a constant menace to their whole inland frontier line. They, on their part, hopeless of breaking through our cordon, look to Australia as their natural prey. To the old Conservative section this idea of fresh conquest is still hateful; but the younger or up-to-date party, educated abroad and filled with the ambitions of the Western world, hold possession of the Emperor’s ear, and have filled him with a desire to revive the glorious traditions of Genghis Khan. With all this Leroy has had much to do. Ever since, outwardly as an American soldier of fortune, in reality as a servant of the Czar, he undertook the reorganization of the Chinese army, he has been a power. The fact that he played so active a part in the Corean War has stood him in good stead, and his success in suppressing the late rebellion, and so winning the favour of the Emperor for Ching Tu, the General nominally in command of the imperial army, has naturally also gained him the friendship of the Marquis. Fired by the accounts of how his countrymen are ill-treated over here — accounts, I may say, grossly exaggerated — and aware both by hearsay and personal knowledge of Australia’s weaknesses and magnificent possibilities as an outlet alike for Chinese rascality and industry, Ching Tu has eagerly taken up Leroy’s idea. Still, such is the magnificent duplicity of the Chinese and the colossal gullibility of the British officials, that nothing is suspected. Outwardly Russia and China are ready again to fly at each other’s throats. The Russians are concentrating an army on the Caspian to occupy the Pamirs. The imperial dockyards and arsenals are working night and day turning out warlike material to resist their old enemy. In point of fact, my dear Zenski, as you know, our army is meant for India, and a Chinese fleet is ready, once we draw off the English squadron, to throw thirty thousand men on Australia.’
‘Leroy tells me the Chinese Government still refuse to officially recognise his action,’ remarked Zenski.
‘Yes,’ laughed Dromeroff; ‘they have taken a leaf out of our Central Asian code; he is only to be acknowledged if successful. But it is too apparent; and if he fails, they will find it out.’
‘If he once lands, he can’t fail,’ said the Count. ‘Australia is to be had for the taking. The keeping it, if England survives, is, pardieu, another matter.’
‘With that we have nothing to do,’ said Dromeroff cynically. ‘The invasion gives Russia a freer hand by diverting the Chinese forces, and extends England’s already unwieldy defensive base. Will you be ready for us?’
‘When you wish,’ replied the Count, rising and walking to a table on which lay unfolded a map of Queensland.
On the map the three great areas divided by watersheds were carefully traced, as also every railway line, road and town; positions also of artesian bores and distances between stages were all ticked off.
‘The lines marked red are those which I have constructed,’ remarked Zenski; ‘but all these are practically in our hands;’ and he went on, in cold, critical tones: ‘It appears to me that the line from Normanton to Hughenden and Longreach, that from Normanton to Cloncurry, and the trunk-line from Point Parker viâ Bourketown and Cloncurry to Charleville, can all be utilized for strategic purposes.’
‘They will be invaluable!’ exclaimed the soldier, keenly following the dotted lines, ‘if they will only let us make use of them.’
‘They cannot help themselves,’ replied Zenski. ‘The whole country is practically held by land-grant railway syndicates and Melbourne and London corporations: all the properties worth mentioning are worked on the tributary system by means of cheap alien labour. The white population, never numerous, has, with the exception of a few poor whites, vanished. We hold by means of our grants the trunk-lines, and can transport a force from Point Parker to Charleville in fourteen hours sufficiently strong to hold it until reinforcements come up.’
‘But how about supplies?’ asked Dromeroff; ‘remember, our attacking force will number at least thirty thousand.’
‘The Levantine firm at Point Parker are prepared to supply everything necessary both as regards war material and food supplies.’
‘I know that. But supposing our base is cut off?’
‘It won’t be,’ replied Zenski; ‘but even so, nearly all the country intersected by our lines of advance is well grassed and watered. Cattle are to be got everywhere, and sheep are kept in the country round Cloncurry and Hughenden.’
‘You are certain as to the water?’
‘Perfectly. Where there was none our bores now provide a limitless supply.’
‘We are bringing no horses. Will there be any difficulty in mounting the cavalry?’
‘None; a sufficient number can always be reckoned on, and, to put the question beyond doubt, we have been collecting drafts for some months, ostensibly to open up a trade with India and Japan.’
‘You are to be complimented, my dear Count,’ exclaimed Dromeroff admiringly. ‘On paper it appears as though the whole affair will resolve itself into a large picnic catered for by yourself.’
‘Rather thank the admirable Sir Peter McLoskie, whose policy has made my work a pleasure,’ laughed Zenski. ‘But to return, when is the dash to be made? The last of my work will be complete in two months at most, and, if possible, I would wish that my Asiatic workmen should be utilized as food for powder.’
‘What, Zenski, do you wish to give them a share of the plunder?’
‘No, mon ami,’ replied the director cynically; ‘I merely thought it would be a cheap means of disposing of them.’
‘Anything to oblige you, Count,’ grinned Dromeroff; ‘three months should bring things to a head. When will you be ready to show me over the country?’
‘We can start at the end of the week, and, as there is much of detail to work out, I will run over to China with you and see Leroy in person. Fill your glass, Dromeroff.’
‘To the Yellow Wave!’ said the soldier.
‘And Sir Peter McLoskie!’ added the diplomat.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 95-104