[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
The smoking-room of the Midas.
The smoking-room of the Midas was gradually filling. To-night those who usually had a cigar and then went out lit a fresh one, while men kept dropping in and forming into little knots in various parts of the lofty, richly-furnished room. Taken as a whole, they were a keen-looking lot of men; among them ‘cute’ faces were as common as intellectual ones were rare. In a word, they were fair types of the Australian plutocracy. Merchant princes (so called), squatters (or, to be more correct, men who managed their stations for banking and other institutions), an occasional politician, racehorse owners, and a nondescript contingent who neighed when spoken to on any subject, made up the well-dressed mob who lounged or sat about discussing horses, wool, and Russian designs. For the moment, at any rate, among the group who stood clustered round Sir Robert Blake, the intentions of the Muscovite claimed a foremost place. For months a shower of contradictory cable-grams had appeared in the daily press. But to-day things looked decidedly stormy, for a Persian army had occupied Herat — at least, so the cable asserted.
Sir Robert stood in front of the fire, a paper in his hand, his spectacles gleaming like a pair of intoxicated head-lights high up on his forehead. Over six feet high, and well set up, he was undoubtedly the most striking-looking man in the room. Though for years a prominent politician, he was a comparatively new member of the Midas, having changed his club and his principles within the last six years.
‘This comes of having a confounded Liberal Government in power!’ exclaimed Sir Robert, with a fine disregard for the fact that every Cabinet, whether Tory or Liberal, had played into Russia’s hands for years past. ‘These beggars mean making a spring this time.’
‘But, then, the cable is such a liar!’ protested a man half buried in an armchair. ‘We’ve been getting these scares off and on for years. I believe it’s all bosh.’
‘What do you know about it?’ replied Sir Robert, glaring down at the last speaker.
Interruption always irritated him, but in the case of this rather stout, self-satisfied-looking young man it became unbearable.
‘About as much as you do, Sir Robert, I suspect,’ retorted the sceptic coolly.
‘Then you have more time and brains at your disposal than I supposed,’ replied Sir Robert rudely. ‘I imagined both were fully occupied in teaching men whose age should protect them how to manage their offices and stations.’
The loud laugh that greeted this brusque retort was too much even for the man in the chair, and muttering, too low for his opponent to hear, ‘Confounded cad!’ he rose and left the field to the leader of the Opposition.
‘They mean coming this time,’ continued the ex-Premier, lighting a cigar worthy of his own proportions. ‘This Persian business is only a “blind.” The whole affair is as clear as day. Russia pulls the strings; Russian officers direct the advance; and while our Government are arguing the matter out with the Shah, the Czar will pour a hundred thousand men into the gate of India.’
‘My dear fellow,’ interposed a slight, rather commonplace man, who held the position of Minister for War in the existing Government, and in private life directed a large soft-goods emporium, ‘you are as bad as these alarmists who for the last fifty years have been attempting to scare England into undignified and hysterical action alike unworthy of her traditions and present position. Rest assured the motherland will assert herself when the time comes.’
‘Assert herself be d——d!’ exclaimed Sir Robert. ‘If she doesn’t soon stop backing herself, she’ll fall into the Indian Ocean.’
A chorus of indignant protest told the ex-Republican that he had gone too far.
‘No man has a greater love and respect for England than I,’ he continued; ‘and feeling as I do, I’m not going to stand by without uttering a protest against a policy unworthy of a great nation.’
‘For myself, I have no fear,’ returned the Minister for War. ‘In the first place, Russia’s power in the East is greatly exaggerated; and, further, I feel certain, as I said before, that England will assert herself when necessary. If Persia has really occupied Herat, doubtless a commission will settle the whole affair.’
‘But what if Russia is, as I maintain, at the back of Persia?’
‘My dear Sir Robert, you are a fire-eater! Please remember that England is a commercial nation, and it won’t pay to go to war merely for a sentiment.’
‘You’ve hit the nail on the head,’ laughed Dick Hatten, who had just come in. ‘Napoleon spoke too soon, that was all; we are a nation of shopkeepers.’
‘Sir,’ exclaimed the small man indignantly, ‘where would England be to-day but for her merchant-princes?’
‘In a more dignified position than that of the best-snubbed nation on the earth, possibly,’ retorted Hatten carelessly. ‘Hullo, Zenski! what are you up to?’
‘Mon ami, I am listening,’ retorted the Russian. ‘Will you not join us? Here is a chair, and I can give you a passable cigar. Allow me to introduce you to my friend Mr. Alexis Dromeroff.’
The man who rose and bowed to Hatten looked, despite his clean-shaved upper lip, more of a soldier than a civilian. In age he might have been thirty-five — possibly was fifty — but the lines about his eyes and at the corner of his clean-cut mouth told that in knowledge of men he was patriarchal.
‘My friend has just come from Russia,’ Zenski went on. ‘Like myself, he has ideas of his own, and so finds it conducive to his health to remain at a distance from our great White Father.’
‘Yes, Mr. Hatten,’ said Dromeroff, in a low, well-modulated voice; ‘living under free British laws, you little know what life in Russia means for the man who dares to think for himself. Just when Siberia or flight lay before me, my old friend’s letter came, telling me of this grand new land of yours, and — well, I am here.’
‘I’m sure we’re very glad to have you,’ replied Hatten politely. ‘I should imagine, from the way Zenski speaks of it, that Russia must be a deuce of a hole to live in for all parties. If you’re a Nihilist, the Government send you to Siberia; and if you belong to the Government, the Nihilists send you to the devil.’
‘Pardon, you mistake; I am not a Nihilist,’ interposed Dromeroff quietly. ‘I am what you would call a Liberal.’
Before Hatten could explain, Sir Robert, who had caught the end of the Russian’s remark, said, with a laugh:
‘Then, I don’t wonder the Czar objected to you, Mr. Dromeroff. I only wish our King could make as short work of our Liberal Government.’
‘You surprise me, Sir Robert!’ replied Dromeroff. ‘I thought you were all democrats.’
‘He is not to be taken au sérieux, Alexis,’ interposed Zenski. ‘Sir Robert merely suffers from irritation for the reason that he thinks the British Cabinet have been too liberal towards Russia as regards frontier lines.’
‘Of course I was only joking, Mr. Dromeroff; and, allow me to add, we are quite ready to welcome all the Russians of your stamp who care to come and help us to build up a nation,’ said Sir Robert courteously. ‘Count Zenski has already shown us what your countrymen can do up North.’
‘Bah! it is nothing,’ said Zenski. ‘I have built you a few railway-lines; anyone could do the same.’
‘Not in the time.’
‘Men and capital will do anything,’ answered Zenski sententiously. ‘Besides, the country is what you call easy.’
‘What do you think about this occupation of Herat?’ asked Sir Robert abruptly.
‘If a fact — which permit me to doubt — and if attempted by Persia alone, it is madness; if carried out at the instigation of Russia, it is what you call “bluff.”’
‘But if so, with what object?’
‘That I cannot pretend to explain. You forget I am as little in touch with St. Petersburg as you are. Perhaps the design of an ambitious General acting on his own responsibility; possibly to draw away all your available forces in view of another rush on Constantinople. Who knows?’
‘What is your opinion, Mr. Dromeroff?’ persisted Sir Robert. ‘You, at least, cannot plead long absence from St. Petersburg.’
‘True; but you will remember I of necessity know nothing but what I may have heard and read in common with the rest of the public. Personally, if my opinion is worth having, you are most welcome to it.’
‘I would be glad to hear it, Mr. Dromeroff,’ interposed the Minister for War, ‘if only to convince Sir Robert that the scare is not worthy the consideration of a statesman.’
‘Well, gentlemen,’ said Dromeroff, hiding the keen amusement he felt at the Minister’s pompous mouthing of the word ‘statesman,’ ‘like my friend Zenski, I am unable to explain why, but, nevertheless, I can only put the movement down as — what shall I say? — “bounce.” That Russia would like well your rich possessions seems but natural; that she at present has any serious designs on them seems to me impossible. If I mistake not, she will want every available Cossack she can put in the field to defend her Chinese frontier. The Pamir question can to my mind only be settled by another war; and she has learnt that China is not to be despised. Again, look at what an invasion of India means — what risks have to be taken hundreds of miles from her actual base of supplies both of troops and war material. Believe me, she recognises, if others do not, how different fighting an English army, backed up by Indian troops, is to conquering a few nomadic tribes badly armed and worse led.’
‘Just my opinion, my dear sir,’ exclaimed the Minister for War, with a triumphant look at Sir Robert. ‘The British lion has only to wag his tail, and your phantom disappears.’
‘He’s wagged his tongue so long that I doubt if he remembers how to move any other part of his carcase,’ laughed Hatten.
‘Russia must also remember,’ went on the Minister, ignoring Hatten’s remark, ‘that the first Cossack who crosses the frontier gives the signal for our gallant boys to rally round the dear old land; we’ve done it once, and we’ll do it again.’ As the speaker concluded, he rose and stood in front of Sir Robert like a soldier-bird defying an emu.
‘Yes, sneered the ex-Premier; ‘and let me add, in the first instance, through no wish of your party, McFee. Still, so far I am with you, and permit me to congratulate you on adopting our idea.’
‘And the country is with you also,’ added an officer of the Soudan Contingent, noted as the man who, when asked to put his company through squad drill, gave the historic command, ‘Men, fall in four thick.’ The country is with you, sir.’
Before the warrior could end his remarks, a waiter entered with the last edition of the Evening News. ‘The weights for the Melbourne Cup!’ exclaimed a man, running his eye over a copy. In five minutes every man in the room, save the two Russians, was discussing the handicap, and Herat was forgotten.
‘They are horses,’ muttered Dromeroff contemptuously in Russian.
‘Principally asses,’ retorted Zenski in the same tone, lighting a fresh cigar, and handing his case to his companion.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 47-54