[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
The council of war.
In Fort Mallarraway a feeling of doubt and unrest pervaded every breast. Ignorant that the Kalmucks, who had so nearly captured Cameron, had been sent by Leroy for that special purpose, the men in the Fort naturally concluded that they were but the scouts of a larger body. At any moment the enemy might be down upon them in force, and so the outworks were manned, and every worker attached to the establishment was called in.
During the morning, Colonel Collins, the newly-appointed Chief of the Defence Commission, and his colleague, Major Keith, called to inspect the Fort on their way to Hughenden. The Government, it appeared, had at last awoke to a certain sense of possible danger, and had sent the Colonel up North to inquire personally into the disquieting rumours that were in the air, prior to submitting a report to the Minister for Defence.
Totally unaware of the real state of affairs, both officers were thunderstruck at the news which awaited them. The enemy they had been sent to prepare against in the improbable event of his coming had already landed. And the men they were privately instructed to snub as a lot of insane meddlers were the only ones who seemed in any way prepared to oppose his advance. That the landing was really a fact was amply proved both by Johnson’s experience at Cloncurry and Hatten’s letter from Hughenden; while Cameron’s escape further demonstrated that the whole of the country between the two great trunk lines was practically overrun by hostile cavalry.
Fully convinced of the gravity of the situation, Colonel Collins decided to at once wire Sir Peter McLoskie, and asked Musgrave to provide him with a messenger to ride to the nearest station on the Hughenden-Longreach line.
‘It will be useless, I fear,’ replied the President. ‘The line is in Zenski’s hands, and you may depend your message will be blocked.’
‘Then you think the Count is in collusion with the attacking force?’ exclaimed Collins, now full of respect for the opinion of the man he yesterday looked on as a fool.
‘I am sure of it; all inland communication is cut off before this. Sir Peter will hear from below Charleville long before you can let him know.’
You are right,’ interposed Major Keith; ‘we must do the best we can on our own responsibility.’
‘I have half an hour while the horses feed,’ said Colonel Collins; ‘then we must push on to Hughenden. Meantime, I would like to have your opinion.’
‘Such as it is you are welcome to it,’ replied Musgrave, leading the way into the committee-room.
Taking his usual seat at the head of the table, Musgrave began:
‘I assume that you wish to deal with the defence of this part of the colony?’
The Colonel nodded.
‘Of course our preparations form a portion only; still, they have their value. To throw further light on the subject, I propose to ask Mr. Cameron and one or two other gentlemen well acquainted with the country to join us.’
After the men spoken of had taken their seats, the president resumed:
‘Our works you have already seen; to defend them we have a couple of hundred men well armed and fairly drilled, and all provided with good horses. We have also four machine-guns, such as they are, and enough ammunition to last for a fortnight. If help does not arrive before, we must then cut our way out. I intend to send all our women folk to Hughenden to-day, where Hatten will meet them and send them on to Townsville.’
While Musgrave was speaking, the two officers, both old army men, listened without comment.
When he had ended, Colonel Collins began:
‘It appears to me that the whole of the Gulf country may be considered already in the hands of an enemy — whether Russian or Chinese matters little, for in either case they are formidable. Facts are well known here pointing in this direction, which will not be readily understood in Brisbane, and they are so notorious that it is idle to discuss them. The only way to have defended Normanton and Point Parker was to have sent there by train a strong force of infantry and artillery months ago, and also a squadron of gunboats by the Barrier Channel. As it is, there is no possibility of making a stand beyond Hughenden. Well, we have reached this point: what can be done at Hughenden?’
‘There is the usual company of volunteers,’ said Johnson, ‘commanded by a very decent fellow, a contractor by trade — no doubt he’ll do his best; and about two dozen men, nominally belonging to the mounted rifles, good enough horsemen, but seldom mustered.’
‘I have this from the official report, also that there are a few mounted police,’ said the Colonel. ‘Such being the small force available, is there any prospect of defending Hughenden? The ordinary colonial township is hardly capable of protracted defence. By felling all the trees around as abattis, manning the windows of houses, and barricading the streets, a strong force of good riflemen might cause an enemy serious loss and delay his advance; but no such town could be saved ultimately from troops with artillery.’
While the Colonel was speaking, the door had opened, and now Hatten, with a sabre-slash on his cheek and with his uniform torn and bloodstained, walked into the room. Rising to their feet, all stared aghast at the new-comer.
Saluting, Hatten said in a voice hoarse with fatigue and rage:
‘You need not trouble about the defence of Hughenden, Colonel. The town is in the hands of the enemy, and every man, woman, and child who has not escaped has been slaughtered.’
For a little there was silence. With the fall of Hughenden all hope of saving their women by flight was practically extinguished.
The Colonel was the first to speak.
‘Did you succeed in communicating with the officer in command at Longreach, Captain Hatten?’ he asked.
‘No, sir,’ said Hatten, a trifle bitterly; ‘Count Zenski’s station-masters were in the way.’
‘You of course wired Townsville?’
‘I did; but got no reply. Probably the line was cut; however, the trains that got away before the town was taken will give the alarm along that line.’
‘My God!’ exclaimed Cameron, full of fear for his daughter’s safety. ‘We are trapped.’
‘Not yet,’ said Collins. ‘Why not let all the women be got away South by a forced march through the centre of the country flanked by the trunk-lines?’
‘You forget, sir,’ interposed Hatten, ‘the cross-line between Longreach and Mayne River Station. If I am right in my calculations, the enemy, having full use of the telegraph lines, will attack Longreach simultaneously from Hughenden and Mayne River.’
‘Gentlemen,’ said President Musgrave, ‘as Mr. Cameron says, we are trapped. How do you propose that we should act?’
‘Here the outlook is hopeless,’ remarked Major Keith; ‘no serious organization is possible with such scanty material.’
‘We should, however, be able to reckon on help from the coast by railway or otherwise,’ said Collins.
‘You are right, Colonel,’ said Musgrave, placing a map on the table to illustrate his explanation. ‘The Townsville Railway intersects a country of gold-fields and cattle-runs containing even yet a fine, hardy population; perhaps one thousand men might be expected by this line. Later on a smaller force may be expected from the North.’
‘These could operate on the enemy’s flank,’ muttered the Colonel; ‘but I doubt if they will be strong enough to break through and relieve you.’
‘Then,’ said Keith, ‘it comes to this — the only position between the lines fit to offer a real resistance is Fort Mallarraway.’
‘Yes,’ said Collins; ‘here we must make our stand. Every man drawn off from the general advance of the enemy gives our comrades behind one chance the more. So, gentlemen, let us fight them while the powder lasts.’
‘And then blow up the Fort and cut our way through the yellow devils!’ muttered Hatten grimly.
‘You are right, Hatten. This army of Asiatics, even if officered, as is probable, by Europeans, must be fought to the last. The idea of surrender must not be entertained for a moment. No terms would be kept by them. The officers have little power over the savages they lead, and all experience shows that the last excesses and extreme horrors of war must be expected from such an army. As at Hughenden, so everywhere: neither sex nor age will be spared.’
As the Colonel spoke, President Musgrave glanced at Cameron. The old squatter’s cheek was pale, but his lips were set. Face to face with the inevitable, he was once more the dauntless bushman, ready for all things save his child’s dishonour.
Rising, Musgrave said:
‘I agree with every word spoken. Every girl and boy capable of firing a shot must be given the chance. Further, I consider it will be necessary to speak very plainly to the women. In spite of us, they may fall into the hands of these savages. Every woman should carry a weapon, and, besides, have poison upon her, so that protection from worse than death may be assured.’
For a moment the old man stopped, then went on in a voice husky and broken:
‘If our women carry their fates in their hands, their husbands and brothers will fight with at least one weight of horror off their hearts.’
By virtue of his official rank, Colonel Collins had every right to assume command of the Fort, but recognising that President Musgrave was the natural leader of its garrison, he courteously offered to assume a subordinate command.
‘No, Colonel,’ replied Musgrave; ‘you’re a soldier, and I’m not. I’ll look after the commissariat, and see my fellows carry put your orders, but you must lead them.’
About an hour after Hatten’s arrival, fugitives from Hughenden began to arrive, and a little after mid-day the greater part of the Isis Downs troop rode in.
Finding the station-house blown up, and dead Kalmucks scattered about the burning ruins, the men had pushed on for Fort Mallarraway. As they reached the outposts, Hatten and Collins met them.
‘I see you’ve christened your new lances,’ said Dick.
‘We came across a body of about thirty savage-looking devils four or five miles back,’ replied Lieutenant Ryan, ‘so I charged them on spec. The beggars showed fight, but we were too fresh for them, and when they tried to clear, their horses were so done that we ran every mother’s son of them down.’
‘Did you make any prisoners?’ asked Collins, anxious for possible information.
‘Devil a one! the boys reckoned they had a hand in burning Cameron out, so we just practised on them with the new pig-stickers.’
‘How did they act?’ asked Hatten.
‘Didn’t I tell ye, Captain, that we took no prisoners?’ grinned Ryan. ‘What better proof could ye ask of the success of your invention?’
As the day wore on, odd fugitives still kept coming from the North, all full of the same gruesome story. The coolies had joined issue with the enemy, and helped in the general massacre that followed Hatten’s departure. So far no women had come, while the men reported that, once clear of the town, they had seen no signs of the enemy. Dick understood only too well the absence of the former, while the fact that the Kalmuck cavalry had not reached Hughenden explained the rest.
On all sides the task of completing the works went on with machine-like rapidity. Naturally, the opportunities for effective resistance to troops without heavy artillery were excellent. On the south side of the ridge on which the main buildings stood stretched a rocky ravine watered by a permanent spring. Protecting the farther edge of this valley rose a palisade, with a ditch on either side, while a similar defence ran along the northern base of the hill, the two lines being connected by short barricades. At the four corners of this parallelogram stood bastions built of concrete and stone, on which were mounted the four machine-guns, placed so that they could sweep the face of either front.
As the roof of the club-house commanded the whole position, Colonel Collins erected a breastwork of sacks filled with earth inside the parapet, from behind which the riflemen could fire over the defenders on an approaching enemy.
Under Dick’s direction, the horses were picketed in the ravine below the enemy’s line of fire, and as there were over four hundred tons of hay and ensilage, the question of fodder for them and the stock wanted for the commissariat caused no uneasiness. In Dick’s mind the question really was, Could they hold the position long enough to use it all?
At four o’clock everything was prepared for the defence, and the men, divided into companies, were ready to rush to their posts the moment the signal was given.
Nugent and Ryan commanded on the east and west barricades, while Major Keith and Johnson had charge of the two main palisades. Hatten retained his position as Adjutant, and Colonel Collins directed the whole defence.
As the hot November sun, glowing like a shield of molten copper, sank into the sullen western haze, Colonel Collins and Hatten joined Cameron and his daughter on the roof of the club-house. All day long the girl had been working with the rest loading cartridges and preparing bandages. This last was gruesome work, but, as Mrs. Musgrave said, not to be avoided on that account. Their defenders were about to face death, and they must be prepared to bind up their wounds. So these women set about their task, and, in providing for the wants and pains of others, managed to put aside for the time the thought of the dread alternative which lay before them.
Leaving his commanding officer to talk to Cameron, Dick walked to the northern parapet with Heather. Again they were alone; but to-night no word of love fell from his lips, and yet to-night he loved her with an intensity before unknown even to himself. In a few hours he might, for all he knew, be beyond all reach of human passion — dead in the trench which stretched like a long narrow grave beneath. But even this grim prospect troubled him little; it was what must follow when the Mongols rushed over his and his comrades’ bodies that filled his soul with horror for Heather’s fate, and with a strange yearning love, such as comes to a mother watching by the death-bed of her first-born.
Awed by the near presence of an unutterable danger, the girl spoke rather of the past than the present, but at last the dread reality of her peril forced itself upon her, and she spoke of the coming foe.
‘Dick,’ said the girl almost in a whisper, ‘I want you to promise me something.’
But knowing what it was, the man said never a word.
‘Mr. Musgrave has told us that if the worst comes we must kill ourselves.’
‘It won’t come to that while I live,’ muttered Dick hoarsely.
‘I know that, you brave old fellow!’ said the girl trustfully; ‘but even you can’t do what may be impossible, and, Dick, I hate the thought of killing myself. I know it’s weak, but I dread it; and so, when all is lost, I want you to save me. If I must die, let it be by your hand.’
‘You have asked much from me, Heather,’ replied Hatten huskily, ‘and for the love I bear you I have striven to obey; but this is more than I can do.’
‘For the sake of your love grant this last request,’ she pleaded; ‘your aim is sure, mine may fail, and then God help me.’
For a long time he stood silent, looking out into the blazing west; then he said slowly: ‘If I am alive I will do what you ask.’
‘Do you see something moving on the horizon line?’ exclaimed a voice, and turning, he saw Colonel Collins pointing towards the north.
Taking the Colonel’s field-glasses, Dick looked steadily out over the Downs; then he said quietly: ‘Horsemen of some sort.’ Again putting the glasses to his eyes, he handed them to Collins with an exclamation.
‘There are women and children running in front of them!’ exclaimed the Colonel. ‘One has fallen; now she’s kneeling over her child. My God! the wretches are butchering her! They’ve caught up to the rest. Ah!’ and the strong man winced as if beneath a blow. ‘The devils are cutting them to pieces! Hatten!’
But Dick was gone; and almost as the Colonel called him, his voice rose from below ordering his men to saddle.
Hardly delayed by their work of murder, the Kalmucks galloped on towards the Fort, and now the watchers could catch the glitter of their lance-heads as they swept over the Downs.
For a little they were puzzled by the standard carried by the leading trooper. Then with a thrill of horror they realized that it was a girl’s head stuck on the point of his spear! Her long hair, streaming in the breeze, glittered fitfully in the dying sunlight as the ruffian waved his lance with a gesture of defiance. Behind him raced a yelling horde, some bearing trophies such as his, others with human heads dangling from their stirrups. Splashed with blood and drunk with slaughter, on they came, their broad, squat features, tangled elf locks, gleaming eyes, and shark-like jaws, combining to make up a picture worthy of the hell they were sent to create. When about two hundred yards from the outworks they halted, and, uttering a yell of defiance, wheeled about.
As they did so, ‘Charge!’ rang out, and sword in hand, Hatten, followed by his troop, dashed out of the Fort and away over the Downs.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 275-286