[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
A dinner-party at the Mitylene Palace.
Dating its rise from the commencement of the land-grant railways, Point Parker now ranked as one of the most important towns of Queensland. At the waving of the potent wand of commerce it had sprung into life on the desolate shores of the Gulf, and now both sea and land combined to force its more than tropic growth. In the holds of swift ocean steamers came all the costly luxuries of the Eastern world, to pass from its warehouses into the remotest corners of Australia, while on the wheels of Zenski’s trains the raw produce of the province was carried to its wharves for transportation to the older worlds. Sitting by the gates of the sea, it bade fair to become a second Carthage, with none of that warlike spirit which wrecked the older city, but fed by even a vaster commerce than was borne into the African capital by desert caravans and silken-sailed galleys. Quick to recognise the possibilities that lay before so promising a commercial centre, and relieved as to all question of the necessary capital by the promise of a subsidy paid down in return for certain services to be performed when occasion should require, the Levantine firm of Spero, Aloysius and Co. opened a branch establishment at Point Parker soon after Zuroff and Co. began the construction of their land-grant railways.
With the progress of the various lines, and the introduction of a wholesale system of alien labour, the industries of the Gulf country took a new lease of life. Individualism disappeared both in employer and employed; the syndicates daily absorbed more of the public estate. Fostered with fatherly care by Barlon’s Land Bill, they were permitted to exchange their own special blocks for better areas, while another clause enabled Eurasians, Kanakas, and Japanese indented by the syndicates to obtain large areas in their own names and hand them over to their employers.
Unable to compete with the cheap labour of the East, the whites, never numerous, quickly disappeared. Unreasonable when the future was their own, it was now remorselessly taken from them. Overseers who transmitted unquestioned commands to unquestioning toilers had no places open for men who might strike at any moment. Work that was constant and cheap was what the corporations required to make the North a paying concern; so the white man was abolished, and ten aliens worked in his stead for less outlay, and, all things considered, with more satisfactory results — to the absentee syndicates.
First in the field, Spero, Aloysius and Co. rose with the improving fortunes of Point Parker. Six years ago they had introduced the fleet of the Levant and Red Sea Steamship Company to the shores of Australia. To-day their warehouses, wharves, and vaults, connected by tramways, stretched in unbroken succession along the shores of the Point.
Their vaults were said to be packed with tuns of Chian wine and other products of the Greek grape. As to the presence in the lower tiers of other merchandise of a more explosive and less palatable flavour, a discreet silence was maintained for the present.
Favoured guests, eminent Southern capitalists, patriotic statesmen making the grand tour, Sir Peter McLoskie, Sir Samuel Mitson, and others, always spoke with enthusiasm of the Mitylene Palace and the genial hospitality of the senior partner, Mr. Spero.
The firm was orthodox and devout in a marked degree. They had presented £50 to the district hospital, and £500 as an offering to the Church of England; while the Pastoral and Financial Association in Collins Street, and the V.R.C., were both duly recognised; in fact, everything truly English and in touch with capital was in evidence in their carte de pays.
But nothing was half so English as Mr. Simpkins-Thompson, Mr. Spero’s coadjutor and partner.
To-night the firm were giving one of their justly celebrated dinner-parties.
Zenski and Dromeroff were to start in the morning for Hong Kong. During the week that had passed since their arrival from Charleville, the Russians had taken a run over all the other lines included in the scheme of attack; and now, armed with a personal knowledge of the country, Dromeroff was ready to get back to Canton.
As a graceful bon voyage to his guests, Mr. Spero, true to his character of a merchant prince, now offered them a farewell feast.
The stranger within the gates of the Mitylene Palace would be dull past compare who failed to realize that here the influence of money was fully displayed and vindicated.
The surroundings told of unlimited wealth, luxurious taste, and generous hospitality towards men of the right stamp, the appointments being alike picturesque and gorgeous.
Lines of dusky faces in alternate scarlet and snowy turbans stood waiting behind the chairs, each ready to serve silently and swiftly the guest who chanced to be his particular care.
On the table tropic flowers bloomed in dainty contrast, amid mimic glaciers of snow and ice, piled in vases of aluminium, crystal, and gold. Silver-mounted electric lamps filled the room with a soft, mellow radiance, while from the space left open by the sliding roof, a glimpse was caught of a star-shot sky like a painting of the night set in a framework of polished pine.
Through the lattice-work which hung between the slender pillars of the eastern end, a perfumed breeze from invisible punkahs rustled the scarlet hibiscus and deep green foliage in their quaintly-carved jars, and shook the rich tapestry and brilliant draperies of Japan and Khorasan which, hanging above the arches, let in faint murmurings of the sea.
Art and Nature combined to form an ensemble far exceeding in magnificence anything to be seen elsewhere in Australia. The cuisine was as far above antipodean aspirations as its altar of sacrifice. Here were venison and pheasants from Northern China, and beside them the dainties of the Bush and the plains, disguised with all the cunning condiments of Hindostan by the cultured skill of a real cordon bleu from the Faubourg. Besides these were Bush quails stewed in madeira, wallaby transformed into a dish of paradise, and desert custard served with the royal truffles that come from the banks of the Finke.
Mr. Spero presided at the head of the table; Zenski, always at home in Mitylene, acted as croupier, while the bluff and burly Simpkins-Thompson sat in the left centre among a lot of jolly fellows, globe-trotters with the Carlton Club imprimatur, primrose enthusiasts in the greenness of youth, quaffing Moet to the Finke truffles, and one or two solemn and deferential representatives of Sydney mortgage companies. On the right side of the table, opposite Simpkins-Thompson, sat the nobodies in particular: pastoral clients under the screw, chance visitors, and overlanders from beyond the telegraph line.
Such stragglers were always invited — the clients in order that they might be suppressed and sat upon by the ornate talk of the junior partner and the magnificence of the surroundings; outside strangers beyond the business network, because they served to spread over the plains and wastes the wealth of the firm and their great power as capitalists.
Dick Hatten, en route for his ill-starred cattle-station, had chanced to drop into Point Parker a few hours before, and now found himself sitting beside a neighbour, who had just come in from the ‘Territory.’ From Donald Farquhar of Deeside, Dick heard little to promote appetite. Things on the Roper were going to the devil, said the Scotchman.
But as that had been their normal state for years, and as his own run was mortgaged past redemption, Hatten called philosophy to his aid, and decided to spoil the Egyptians, if only in the matter of truffles and champagne.
Overlanders and pioneer squatters are used to live upon salt beef, Johnny cakes and quart-pot tea; so the glow of pleasure may be imagined with which Donald Farquhar found before him, placed reverentially by an attendant in a scarlet turban, a grouse-pie and a mutton ham.
‘The Dee, the Don, Balgounie Brig black wall, the heather-scented breeze from the Braes of Mar,’ all passed over him with the memories of his youth and the sniff of those Highland viands. As Lord Byron once felt far away among the isles of Greece, Donald thought he had got among first-rate folk, and he devoted himself with fervent loyalty to the moor-cocks and sheep-shank. Mr. Simpkins-Thompson was now addressing his remarks to a Sydney youth in elaborate evening dress, who ran a brick wool store on the shores of Port Jackson. The wool-broker’s manner betokened the most profound deference. It was not every day that he was privileged to sit down with such representatives of capital, and he hoped to extend his connection and pass over some Northern accounts to Spero, Aloysius, and Co.
‘Yes, my dear Mr. Hodson,’ said Thompson, with a real Yorkshire accent and manner, ‘I assure you the thorough English character of the McLoskie policy is becoming plainer every day, and nowhere do you find that policy so highly approved as in Pall Mall, sir, and the midland counties, sir. If you have the Tory interest, sir, the county families, sir, and the hunting men at your back, you have all England, sir, and no other opinion is worth a whiff of tobacco. I was in the shires last season; Hodson and I met in one hunting-field, near Northampton, nine owners of Gulf property drawing incomes through our firm of from eight to twenty thousand a year. They had got their estates through our agency, and without coming to Australia or putting themselves to the slightest bother. Their profits in sugar, coffee, and cattle reach them yearly through the Levant Company; while under our supervision the routine of their estates goes on, worked by boss tributors from the North and coolie labour contractors. We have in our books now forty clients of this stamp. Results like these show the true statesman, and I tell you, sir, the Queensland Premier has saved Australia with his land-grant railways and Asiatic commerce and labour.’
Here Mr. Thompson’s fist came whack down on the mahogany, making the plates and crystal rattle.
‘England, sir, is the real home of capitalists and the storehouse of capital, and the true people of England can count their thousands by tens and twenties. I assure you, my dear Hodson, it makes me sick to hear the infernal trash they talk in the old colonies, about settlement and colonization, and farming and other rot. I say with the late Admiral Boggs, the founder of Townsville, and the father of the plains of promise — I say so with that venerable patriot and bank director: “It is capital that must have the land, sir, and must have the sea and everything else, sir. Squatters and selectors are d——d paupers, one and both — boil ’em down, sir — wind ’em up and have done with them — it’s the greatest mercy to such infernal crawlers. Let ’em go into the soda-water and billiard-marking line or drive a dust-cart, and make an honest living, and be d——d to ’em!”’
Hatten was getting interested in this blatant John Bullism — especially the version put in the mouth of the late Admiral Boggs.
‘Did Admiral Boggs really say that, Thompson?’ he inquired, with a broad grin of disbelief, ‘or is it only your Eastern imagery?’
Innocent of intent as the question really was, it apparently struck home with most unpleasant force. Thompson’s bloated face took even a deeper tinge, and his answer, when he made it, was not up to his usual form. When his nerve failed, his speech lost the bluff English intonation, and savoured of the Lubeck steamers, and the Odessa Coin Exchange, and other polyglot centres. But being a stout, florid man, and well up in club and racing talk and Stock Exchange jargon, he seldom broke down. In the present instance the collapse, slight as it was, was not lost upon Hatten, who laughed more heartily than discreetly.
Round Zenski the subject of the Kanaka trade was under discussion for the benefit of a new man who had secured a plantation through Spero, Aloysius and Company.
‘Mon ami, it is an admirable system,’ remarked the Count, ‘if only the pauvre devils would not die so quickly.’
‘Is that a fact, sir?’ asked the sugar-planter. ‘Some years ago we sent a lady from England to see into this matter, sir, and on her return she assured us in the Times that the Kanakas were treated splendidly, and were as happy as Sunday-school children.’
‘Doubtless,’ laughed Zenski; ‘I remember her. She was a most charming lady, and, unlike most of her sex, singularly modest in the matter of luggage.’
‘Then how do you reconcile your statement with hers?’
‘If you had a pig-pen, and knew the inspector was about to arrive, what would you do?’
‘Clean it, I suppose.’
‘Precisely; that is what my estimable friends did. Pardieu, you English are too comical, with all respect to your great nation; you want to find out particulars about a mob of savages practically without women of their own, and only able to speak through an interpreter paid by their masters, and you send a woman who can’t speak their language, and who, if she discovered half their immoralities, dare not for very shame’s sake print them.’
‘Then you think the system bad?’ asked the Englishman in surprise.
‘Pardon me, I consider it admirable, as I said before. They are only slaves, and not fit for a better destiny. I am only tickled at the naïveté of your grand newspaper; such innocence is refreshing.’
‘Then what would you advise?’
‘Coolies, my friend — they last longer; besides, the Kanaka will soon be like the Moa. In twenty-three years 48,000 have come to Queensland; of these 26,000 returned, about 9,000 died, and 9,000 more are not accounted for. They are apt to become too sickly for sugar-growing, and a trifle expensive as manure.’
Gradually the guests had begun to straggle out on to the marble colonnade that overlooked the Gulf. Those who remained were Spero’s particular friends, men like himself, interested only in the creation of wealth.
Gathering round the junior partner, and relieved from the restraint caused by the presence of strangers whose tastes were unknown to them, they became natural. Led by Simpkins-Thompson, his particular coterie vied with each other in the narration of dubious anecdote. They were an average company, neither better nor worse than their fellows.
Still, their wit was grosser than that of scholarly men, and, unlike theirs, totally unrelieved by any suggestion of art or intellectual ideal. But for the costly silver, the glittering crystal, and the faultless get-up of its occupants, a listener might have supposed that he was witnessing the jollity of a band of factory hands during the dinner-hour. Practically such was the case. Most of them were men who, to use the cant phrase, had been the architects of their own fortunes.
For some, possibly, this definition in its best sense was applicable enough, with, of course, this reservation, that a number of innocent people are invariably sacrificed during the erection of any large structure, whether of gold or stone. In most cases, however, land-grabbing, bogus banks, syndicates, and mining speculations, in which the promoters sold the general public experience at boom prices, were the chief factors in the creation of the capitalists of the party. But whatever the means, it was in nine cases out of ten a rush for the spoil, and such being the case, those engaged in it had seldom either time or inclination for polishing the mind while gilding the body.
So these plutocrats brought their early coarseness along with them — not because they were worse than other men, but simply because the law of evolution demands more time for working out its ends than an ordinary life can give.
After midnight, when the last guest had gone, the partners, accompanied by Zenski and Dromeroff, entered the cabinet where they held their secret conclaves.
‘Look here, Bourouskie,’ said Spero irritably: ‘you do too much the Tory Englishman. You over-act the part. That schimmil with the black moustache was laughing in your face. What is his name? Hand me the register. Yes: “Hatten, Richard, Roper River. One thousand seven hundred cattle mortgaged to the Pastoral Finance Company, £2,600.” Lucky Hodson is here! Give him a cheque for £3,000, including margin to cover expenses, and get him to wire for an assignment of the mortgage. Mr. Hatten is not wanted on the Roper River. See that he is turned out quick, and let one of the Kalmuck herdsmen look after the cattle. Grinning, d——d Socialist! cheeky pauper with his paltry cattle! Now, have you got that down?’
Getting an affirmative nod from his junior and now totally subservient partner, Spero went on:
‘Well, is your report ready for the steamer? Bring it in an hour, and I will enclose it to the house at Smyrna. Wait a moment, Bourouskie: there is something I nearly forgot. Tell the Hetman to get all the cattle with cancer and pleuro drafted out for shipment to Thursday Island — they will answer well for the British commodore’s contract. It is easy to sell anything to the officers of her Majesty’s commissariat.’
As Bourouskie went out to finish his report, Zenski remarked to the senior partner:
‘Waste-paper, Spero, mon ami, if all goes well; but let him make it out — he is useful, doubtless, but the canaille irritates me: I would sooner have a last look at your wine-vaults without him.’
Touching the panelling with his finger, a door opened silently, and, taking up a hand-lamp, Spero led the way down a winding stair.
Following their leader along a narrow tunnel, the two men soon stood in a vast catacomb of cellars — below the surface, but dry and airy.
‘You have a large stock of wine?’ grinned Zenski, pointing to rows of casks that disappeared in the darkness of the vaults.
‘Enough to blow the whole of Queensland into the China Sea,’ laughed Spero.
‘And the batteries?’ asked Dromeroff.
‘Come with me, Colonel, and I will show you where we keep them very nice and warm,’ replied Spero, moving on into the gloom.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 131-143