[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
Under the flame trees.
Leaving the smoking-den, the four men joined the ladies on the front veranda. From where they sat the garden lay wrapped in silver light, while out beyond, in the horse-paddock, the trees threw their long trails of shadow over the ripe dun grasses.
Skyward, no thought of cloud dimmed the fair face of the night, where swimming in azure depths a soft September moon looked down from among the glittering constellations on a resting world.
After a few minutes’ chat, Ewan excused himself on the plea of making up the day-book; and then, at Edith’s suggestion, the younger people started for a walk, leaving Cameron and his old friend to discuss ‘langsyne.’
The old squatter enjoyed these chats far more than his companion. To him they recalled the one gleam of romance in his long, practical life. Talking thus in the gloaming, his gentle wife became again something more than a memory, and the full strong voice now and then grew strangely husky, as he told of those days when together they had watched over the wee baby-girl, sleeping in her rude box cradle. At such times as these the squatter felt full of doubt as to the future. Strong as he was, he knew that he was growing old, and that in a few years he, too, must rest beside the mate who had waited for him so long in the Garden of Sleep. The transition itself held no fear for him — nay, rather the elements of a supreme content; but what could he tell the yearning mother of the wee baby she had left for him to cherish? Could he truthfully say that all was well with her? He knew he could not. In the past his selfish heart had almost rejoiced when Orloff, its one rival, had madly sacrificed himself, and left his one ewe lamb to cheer his lonely life. But now, when he realized that he, too, must soon leave the child of his affection to face the world alone, the old man would have given all he possessed to know that she was safe in the arms of a husband who would take up his trust. Of late his thoughts had turned on Hatten, as the one man in whom Heather appeared to take an interest beyond that of a mere conventional friendship, and little as Dick satisfied his hopes, he yet felt that, did his girlie think well of him, he would be wrong to oppose a man who, however far he fell short of his practical ideal, was in all things a gentleman. Money, fortunately, she did not require, and so Cameron began to accustom himself to the picture of Heather marrying Hatten, and weaning him from his present purposeless existence to a more useful life.
With the idea of Heather’s marriage, Mrs. Enson was fully in sympathy, and of late she seemed even inclined to waive her commonsense objections to Dick. In fact, the old lady appeared to be possessed of a keen desire to marry off both the girls as soon as practicable. The part of these evening chats, to which, however, she evinced a growing distaste, was that which treated of a period bringing into unpleasant prominence the question of her own age. As she repeatedly remarked to Cameron, ‘The past is too painful a subject for me to linger on.’
Rendered uneasy, in spite of his disbelief, by Hatten’s statements in the smoking-room, the squatter asked his companion whether she thought Heather really had any feeling beyond mere friendship for Dick.
‘Heather is a puzzle to me, Angus,’ replied the old lady; ‘sometimes she speaks of Richard in a way which leads me to suppose she has, and then, when I suggest such a thing, she looks so utterly surprised that I am forced to the conclusion that I have been mistaken. What do you think yourself?’
‘My dear Prudence, I don’t know anything about women,’ exclaimed Cameron.
‘Few men do,’ sighed Mrs. Enson.
‘How about the Count?’ asked Cameron slyly.
‘Ah, he is a man of fine discernment,’ murmured Mrs. Enson. ‘Now, he says Heather has never forgotten that dreadful young man Orloff.’
‘Does he?’ muttered Cameron. ‘I remember Zenski and he were great friends.’
‘Yes, poor Count! that is one of his biggest regrets; he says he was never so deceived in any man.’
‘He seems to take you more into his confidence than most people,’ hazarded Cameron.
‘He tells me everything,’ said Mrs. Enson, adding coyly: ‘He calls me his affinity.’
‘The deuce he does!’
‘Ah, yes; to me all his plans are confided, all his hopes for the future of this his adopted land explained.’
‘I sometimes think I may be a little old.’
‘Nonsense!’ muttered her companion sleepily. ‘Let me see, you were twenty-seven when you married Enson, and he’s dead about twenty-five years: that would make you a trifle over fifty, Prudence. Why, you’re good for another twenty years yet.’
‘Angus, what do you mean?’ gasped Mrs. Enson. ‘Your memory must be failing.’
‘Tut, tut! of course, now I remember, you were thirty.’
‘I was barely twenty,’ retorted Mrs. Enson with dignity. ‘I don’t care about myself, for, thank goodness, my appearance bears out the truth; but I am surprised at your attempting to make the poor girls older than they really are.’
‘Well, I apologize,’ muttered Cameron, his voice thick with sleep; ‘what does it matter how old you are if you feel young?’
‘It’s all for the Count’s sake,’ simpered Mrs. Enson. ‘Angus, I feel I should confide in you as my oldest friend. The Count has told me he is lost without a companion. Whenever he is near me I feel his eyes are resting on my face; when I suggest a younger girl he tells me fruit must be ripe before it satisfies the palate of an epicure. Now, how would you interpret this charming allegory?’
For reply a deep snore came out of the recesses of Cameron’s chair.
‘Soulless creature!’ snapped Mrs. Enson, rising and walking indignantly past the sleeping squatter.
While the conversation on the veranda was going on, the two girls and their companions strolled on in the moonlight. At first they kept together, but once through the garden-gate, Ted and Edith fell behind. For a time Johnson maintained a morose, not to say cynical, attitude towards the world in general, which keenly amused his companion. Knowing her lover as she did, his pessimistic utterances sounded about as real as the thunder of a stage storm.
‘Look here, Ted,’ said she at last; ‘I know what it’s all about, and I apologize. I don’t care if Mr. Dromeroff is in Siberia.’
‘I hope he is,’ growled Johnson fervently.
‘Don’t be a goose! why shouldn’t I like him if I wish?’
‘I detest foreigners,’ retorted Johnson somewhat illogically.
‘Well, on the whole I agree with you,’ laughed the girl, ‘so let us make it up.’
At first Ted stood on his dignity, but in the end, as generally followed, she twisted him round her well-shaped little finger, and he humbly asked to be forgiven who but a few minutes before had grave doubts about granting forgiveness.
Then they talked about the future as true-hearted lovers do, and builded their little castles of pleasure with the good old fatuous faith which has obtained since the world began.
‘Your mother was so nice to me when I talked to her of our wedding the other day, Edith,’ said Ted as they turned aside and walked towards the riverbank. ‘I believe she’ll be really glad to see us married.’
‘I’m sure she will,’ retorted Edith a little sadly. ‘Do you know, Ted,’ she went on, almost in a whisper, ‘I’m afraid the dear old mother is going to make a fool of herself.’
‘Why, has she bought scrip?’ exclaimed Ted.
‘Worse than that.’
This was a ‘staggerer,’ for Johnson understood Australian mining morality, and anything worse than falling into the hands of a mining broker nonplussed him. At last he said with awed hesitancy:
‘She has not taken to drink?’
‘No, you old stupid!’ cried the girl, laughing in spite of herself at Ted’s expression of concern.
‘Then what has she done?’ demanded the manager.
‘She’s fallen in love with that horrid old Count Zenski, or thinks he’s fallen in love with her. Isn’t it awful, Ted?’
‘Oh, is that all?’ laughed Johnson. Being in love himself, he felt thoroughly cosmopolitan on the subject.
‘It’s too much: I won’t have the hateful old thing for a stepfather, so there! And besides, I feel sure he’s only making a fool of the mater, and that’s worse. Oh, the whole thing is too ridiculous!’ exclaimed Edith, stamping her foot.
‘Well, if what you say is a fact, you won’t have him for a father, that’s certain,’ grinned Ted.
‘Don’t make fun of it; it makes me vexed enough to cry; the mater’s over fifty, and her hair is growing darker every week, and now she wants to take up tennis and riding again.’
‘If all Dick says is true, she might do worse than marry the Count,’ blurted out Johnson. And then, despite Hatten’s request of silence, he allowed himself to be pumped dry. The following day, during a passage of arms with her mother on the subject of the Count, Edith forgot her promise of secrecy, and so in due course Zenski heard Dick’s opinion of him.
Not noticing the loss of their companions, Heather and Dick walked on as by a common consent in the direction of the clump of coral-trees. Questioned as to his future plans, Dick told her of his proposed trip out West.
‘Here there is no chance for a man, and if there were, I can’t bear the idea of settling down to the hopeless monotony of a super’s life,’ said he. ‘I feel I must have action, or I shall rot. Some time ago I read in Favenc’s book of the possibility of rich country in the heart of what they call the Great Desert. As Favenc says, these flying camel trips have been practically useless, and if Major Warburton was right about wild geese flying over his camps, then it follows that there must be water somewhere in the heart of Western Australia.’
‘And you mean to try and find it, Dick?’ said Heather.
‘I do. Billy, I know, will go with me, and with him and a couple of black boys who know the country, I mean to succeed on horseback where these camel expeditions have failed.’
As he ended, they reached the flame trees, now flooded with the moonlight, and looking into the dark, firm face, dignified with the majesty of a strong resolve, Heather realized that she had misjudged him. He might have once been weak; to-night she discovered that he could also be strong.
To her there was something heroic in this wild quest. It appealed to her as a deed attempted amid all the alluring pageant of war could never have done. He was about to attempt the noblest form of physical adventure, exploration, and her heart went out to him standing there hopeless and penniless, but still determined to play his part fearlessly and well.
Then the vision of the dangers he was about to face rose before her.
‘Dick, think well,’ said she; ‘what if you never find the water?’
‘I will do my best,’ he answered simply.
‘You will die!’ she exclaimed, and a note of self-reproach rang through each word. ‘Dick, this is no time for false shame. I feel that could I have given you another answer you would never have thought of this mad expedition. Is it not so?’
‘It is,’ he answered huskily.
She looked so fair, with the moonbeams revelling among her radiant hair, that his strength forsook him, and he spoke the truth when he felt a lie would have been more noble.
For a little there was silence. He had answered not as she hoped, and still as she expected. Then she spoke slowly and as if in pain:
‘You know I love another man — you have promised to help me find him — and so you must know that my love is not mine to give.’
‘Heather,’ he interrupted, ‘for God’s sake don’t let this phantom stand between us. Orloff can never come back to you: do you think that if he were alive he would have sent no message? My love, do not let this cold, impalpable presence hold us apart for ever.’
She knew that even if Orloff were dead his love was still alive, and so at last she said:
‘Mad, unreasonable as it may seem to you, Orloff holds me bound by ties which even the grave cannot break.’
‘Let me but have you here, and I will give you to him in the world beyond if it is your desire,’ he pleaded in a voice of passionate appeal.
‘I cannot,’ she answered strangely. ‘Dick, you are too much of a man to ask me to betray both of us with a lie.’
Then, as he was about to speak, she cried in a voice of despairing bitterness:
‘Believe me, I am not worthy of your love!’
He knew that all was over; that the one pure passion of his wandering, reckless life could never wake responsive fire in the heart of the woman who stood beneath the flame-clad corals, so full of pity that she hated herself because she could not love.
Looking into her face, he said slowly: ‘Now I know that I have no hope.’ Then, with terrible earnestness: ‘But this I swear: Could one so pure as you have by any strange mischance become in the eyes of the world unworthy of a passion such as mine, even had some sin cut you off from all human kind, my love would have bridged the gulf.’
In this supreme moment, when unconsciously Hatten spoke as though he knew of her sorrow, and in the same breath let her see that even had it been a sin he yet would forget all for her sake, Heather’s heart went out to him.
‘Forgive me,’ she faltered, overcome by the grandeur of his passion; ‘I know that I am cruel and ungrateful, but, Dick, I can’t be false to you — to my own heart. I do love you, but not in the way you wish. Surely, when your love is so noble, you can give it to me in the sacred name of friendship?’
‘I love as a man,’ said Hatten slowly, ‘and you have again asked a hard thing of me; still, for my love’s sake be it so. I accept your friendship as a more precious gift than the love of other women.’
Taking her hand in his, he kissed it, as, stepping from under the coral-trees’ red flame, they walked homeward through the moonlit paddock.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 174-183