[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
Queensland in 1954.
Provided with free passes, Zenski and his friend travelled north to Charleville on the Government lines of New South Wales and Queensland. Here the Count and his companion spent a day. As the honoured guest of the Mayor, the Colonel was enabled without cost or inconvenience to study from a military standpoint the position and possibilities of a decidedly uninteresting Bush town, while the managing director received the reports of his engineers and personally inspected the completion of an embankment, ostensibly to be used as sidings for spare trucks, but which, with little trouble, could be converted into a formidable earthwork. Though not yet complete in detail, the line connecting Point Parker with Brisbane was in reality open.
Untrammelled by all question of unionism, Zenski had poured an army of Asiatic workmen into the Gulf, and these, at a nominal wage, had carried his trunk-line silently and swiftly across the eight hundred miles of easy country that lay between the sea and Charleville.
Ever since the connections had become an established fact, one inevitable result began to show itself. Traffic started to ebb from the Government railways running towards the coast, setting in with no uncertain stream in the direction of Normanton and Point Parker.
As their reward for constructing this giant sucker, which, with its companion branches, only wanted time to divert all that produce to receive which millions had been spent by the State in building railways, dredging rivers, and constructing harbours, the combined syndicates had received two hundred million acres of the best land in Queensland.
Practically everything was gone save a strip along the coast already in great part held by other speculators, a few blocks hemmed in by the railway grants, and which were being rapidly bought up, and one barren, hopeless corner peopled with disease and death — the God-forgotten ‘No man’s land’ which buries its sun-scorched head in the sea at Cape York.
Built by alien hands, these railways were for fifty years the absolute property of the syndicates, while the lands through which they ran — saving only such intervening blocks as were not worth securing — remained the property of their constructors for ever.
Round Point Parker these enterprising capitalists had early secured every inch of ground, and on the shores of the Gulf a town had already arisen which bade fair to become the one city of Queensland. Under the new system, hundreds of thousands of pounds once paid by pastoral tenants had gone into the pockets of the syndicates. Legitimate squatting was dead. Individual effort in all industrial pursuits had ceased, but sugar-planting and cattle-raising flourished; for the Kanaka labourer and the Kalmuck stockman did more for a penny than the white man would do for a pound.
Queensland poured out a golden harvest, and law and order reigned supreme; but the harvest was for foreign consumption, and the peace was that which overshadows a land whose national life is sinking into the depths of forgotten aspirations.
After a day’s stay at Charleville, the Count travelled North by special train, his luxurious private car with dining-saloon attached being the only weight behind the powerful electric engine.
Lounging in their comfortable chairs, smoking cigars from Zenski’s special box, the two soi-disant victims of tyrant-ridden Russia followed their course on a map that lay spread on a table between them. At each point marked as a camp the train pulled up, so that Dromeroff might give an opinion as to its suitability. But in this regard there was little to cavil at, for Zenski, himself an old soldier, had picked each spot with an eye both for position as regards opportunities for defence and nearness to water. Wherever the latter was not naturally procurable, a bore supplied a limitless quantity. On either side of the line occasional mobs of cattle, horses and sheep were sighted, but except these and now and then a squat-faced, shaggy-haired Kalmuck stockman, no signs of life relieved the dull monotony of the level country. At every station Dromeroff noticed with satisfaction the presence of cattle yards, while in the absence of English officials, and in the ever-recurring camps of dark or yellow-skinned labourers, he soon recognised that Zenski’s statement as to the invading force coming among friends was no empty boast.
‘There will be practically no fighting until we pass Charleville,’ said he, filling a glass of Chian wine.
‘Not for the column that follows this route,’ returned Zenski. ‘That which starts from Normanton may meet more or less opposition at any point, but even it need fear nothing unless at Hughenden and Longreach.’
‘Then population is dense on that route?’
‘So far as the actual route is concerned, no; for our own and other syndicates hold all the land between the two lines with the exception of Cameron’s property, a co-operative settlement, and one or two small holdings. Danger, if it comes, will be from the direction of Townsville or Rockhampton.’
‘Ah, I see; there are lines from these parts to our own?’
‘To one of them,’ replied Zenski. ‘You will observe that the link between Hughenden and Charleville viâ Longreach is not in our hands; but that need not trouble you, mon ami: it is worked on the same system.’
‘And what of those between Normanton and Cloncurry, and between Cloncurry and Hughenden?’
‘To be used or left alone as we think fit,’ said the Count. ‘Our lines flank them, and there are not a hundred white men in the whole of the district.’
‘Your firm has a splendid property,’ laughed the soldier, ‘and in Sir Peter McLoskie an admirable master. Will not all this mean the old story of killing the goose that lays the golden egg?’
‘My firm is, as you know, indebted to me. Zuroff and Sons have a strong credit, but they could never have accomplished what they have done, both in bribery and construction, but for me; and I — well, again I say you know who stands at the back of Zenski.’
‘But how does this fresh departure affect the original arrangement? — China is not Russia.’
‘I admit,’ returned the Count, ‘that when first I had the honour to tender to the Queensland Government, it was to open up a back-door for Russia when wanted, and at the same time to present Zuroff and Sons with an investment which would enable them to pay not only the interest, but also to repay the principal if required.’
‘And now, mon Colonel, China is about to take up that which Russia finds inconvenient, and in return for the help which Zenski and the Levantine firm can give her army of invasion, their possessions are to be held sacred — not by private arrangement, for we know the Chinamen, but in accordance with the secret treaty between Russia and the Emperor.’
‘And should we fail, what happens then?’ grinned Dromeroff. ‘I am only a soldier, and know no more of your arrangements than is necessary; nor do I care. Still, it seems to me your firm is playing a risky hand — eh, Zenski?’
‘We can hardly do that; but even so Russia can bear the loss. Win or lose, a blow will have been struck that must further extend England’s already weak line of defence, and make the Czar’s chance of winning the Golden Gate more within the range of possibilities.’
‘You are right, Zenski!’ exclaimed Dromeroff. ‘But for the glory of the Emperor, I would not lend my sword to these cursed Chinamen. We are fighting with halters round our necks for a set of dogs who would sacrifice us without a thought if they could do without our brains.’
‘I understand that the Prime Minister is Leroy’s friend?’
‘So he may be; but remember that Ching Tu will not be with us. Still, don’t think I wish to draw back. The Czar asks nothing that his soldiers are not ready to give; and, if we once escape the English squadron, we can die for Russia.’
‘The squadron will be seen to,’ said Zenski cynically. ‘During the last scare they followed us about like cats; they can be taken on another wild-goose chase. As to your success, once landed that is assured up to a certain point. Here they have no military system worth the name. This contingent for India will take away most of the officers who know anything, and the best of their men. What is left is a mob which will be led by men who as a rule know less than many of the rank and file. As it once was with your friends the Chinamen, a commission in Australia is simply a question of influence and money.’
‘The prospect looks promising,’ muttered Dromeroff, ‘if we can only depend on reinforcements. Thirty thousand men can’t hold a country like this against even a mob for long; they are bound to learn by defeat.’
‘You are right, Colonel. For physically and in point of pluck these Australians are admirable; still, pardieu, when first you meet them, should you be so fortunate as to shoot all the paid instructors, the rest is easy, as these are indispensable to an Australian army.’
‘In what way?’
‘Because,’ sneered Zenski, ‘they so often have to tell their officers what to do. These same officers are too funny! For all the boast of Australian horsemen, half of them ride like tailors, while a big percentage know less of their manual than the rank and file.’
‘You are joking?’
‘Not so, my friend. The explanation is easy. Most of their mounted officers never see a charger save the docile animal provided by some livery stable for parade purposes. When not endangering that animal’s ears with their swords, these gentlemen are busy in their offices and at their desks. Doubtless they are excellent at engrossing a deed or disposing of a line in slop trousers; as warriors they are useful only in providing cheap and innocent mirth for both their own men and the general public.’
‘But, hang it all! you are stating exceptional cases.’
‘Possibly,’ retorted Zenski. ‘It is an exceptional service, as you would find if you were in it.’
‘I am glad to hear it,’ laughed Dromeroff; ‘and still it sounds improbable. With the material I have seen, there should be no trouble in turning out a first-class defence force; while, whatever some of the officers may do, I’ve seen even during my trip plenty of men who can ride well enough for any cavalry in the world.’
‘So they can, mon ami, as you will doubtless find. What they call their country troops are even now a formidable irregular body, and here in Queensland they have still the material left for magnificent light cavalry. But what use are these when the system is rotten? First, they discuss every item of their military estimates in Parliament, and so publish to the whole world both their weaknesses and also their absurd plans for curing them. They order tons of ammunition, and store it on a damp island. After five years they get some out, and are surprised because it refuses to go off. A local storekeeper in some mountain region far remote from a railway desires a red coat and sword so that he may go to the Oddfellows’ ball as the Duke of Cambridge. He commands many votes; to keep them the local member of Parliament insists that the safety of the colony depends on the formation of a corps at Budgeregar. The Ministry must retain his vote, consequently the opinion of the Brigade Office is set aside, and the draper becomes captain of what with fine irony one unfortunate commandant dubbed a Parliamentary company. Occasionally Parliament decides that military matters want a thorough overhaul. Then they appoint a Royal Commission consisting of a general, a retired pork-butcher, and an ex-Wesleyan parson to draw up a report.’
‘They are subtle humorists, these Australians,’ sneered Dromeroff.
‘Without being conscious of it. A few years ago, having driven their old Commandant to resign, they brought out a man from England who made the dry bones rattle. He told the officers what he thought of them, and he induced so many old colonels to resign that the people, seeing they were done out of their fun, refused to patronize reviews.’
‘Then I suppose all you have said refers to a bygone age?’ grumbled Dromeroff.
‘Not so, mon Colonel,’ sneered Zenski; ‘they soon got rid of him. He trod on too many corns; he was accused of attempting to imperialize the defence force with the deep-laid design of carrying it away with him to India in his cocked hat. Possibly such was his idea. Pardieu, it doesn’t much matter; for now they are moving heaven and earth to do the very same thing.’
‘You have relieved my mind, Count,’ muttered the soldier; ‘he was a man well got rid of.’
‘As you say, Colonel, he was too modern to be pleasant. Now things are as we should wish them; thanks to what they call the labour members and the retrenchment party, the forces of the colonies were never less effective. Personally I admit the logic of the poor devils of workmen; it would be indeed folly to foster an arm that might at any moment be used to crush them.’
‘To their health, Count,’ said Dromeroff, filling Zenski’s glass and his own. ‘Their argument is, as you say, admirable; what with the labourer’s logic and the capitalist’s want of it, we have nothing to do but to take possession and keep it.’
‘The first is easy,’ remarked Zenski. ‘As to keeping it, that will depend totally on whether England survives or not.’
Leaving Cloncurry behind, on the second day of their journey the Russians passed over the Gregory, a beautiful running stream winding through rich open plains; and from there to the Nicholson stretched an easy route through open forest fairly grassed. From the Nicholson, as they approached Point Parker, the country gradually became more difficult, thinly-grassed box and bloodwood flats, broken by barren, scrub-clad, gravelly ranges, taking the place of the level lands they had left behind.
‘The country here wouldn’t feed an army for long,’ growled Dromeroff, as he glanced out over the cheerless belt that encircled the town.
‘Probably not,’ said Zenski; ‘but why calculate its possibilities? Spero, Aloysius and Co. can get you over that little difficulty.’
As he spoke, the train swept round a curve, and there, stretching along the shores of the Gulf, rose the vast warehouse of the great Levantine firm.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 121-130