[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
The siege of Fort Mallarraway.
An hour after Hatten left the Fort at the head of the ‘Ringers,’ the watchers on the roof of the club-house caught sight of the returning troop. At the entrance to the barricade Colonel Collins met his Adjutant, who reported that he had come up with the Kalmucks after a short pursuit. Hampered by the unbroken state of their mounts, the murderers were easily dispersed, though offering a stout resistance when brought to bay. A few had managed to escape, as Hatten feared to put too big a distance between himself and the Fort, but with these exceptions every savage had been destroyed.
During the night all remained quiet, but the following afternoon the scouts reported that the enemy’s cavalry was advancing in force from the direction of Hughenden. A couple of hours before sunset they swept into view, their lance-heads and sabre-blades glittering above the level lands. Halting his main force out of range, the officer in command rode forward to reconnoitre.
‘Let me make a dash at the beggars, Colonel!’ exclaimed Hatten. ‘If I can get in between them and the main body they’re ours!’
‘I can’t risk it, Hatten,’ replied the Colonel; ‘your fellows are full of fight, but they’re a bit green yet. If they once got going, you’d never stop them, and then good-bye to the whole troop.’
While the two men were speaking, the reconnoitring party rode within a few hundred yards of the northern defence line, and halting, their leader began to inspect the works through his glasses.
‘Damn his impertinence!’ muttered Collins. ‘Swing round that gun and try a pot shot, Keith.’
But the Kalmucks’ leader had not used his glasses for nothing, and before the gun was round, he wheeled his horse and galloped off, followed by his companions.
‘Don’t fire!’ shouted Collins; ‘we can’t throw away a shot.’
Apparently satisfied that the position was too strong to attack unsupported by infantry, the cavalry commander now began to make a reconnaissance of the surrounding positions.
Whenever the enemy chanced to come within range, the rifles on the roof of the club-house rang out; but beyond these occasional reports and the answering yells of the Kalmucks, no sound of war broke the stillness of the sultry day.
Just before sunset a column of infantry joined the besieging force.
Too short of both ammunition and men to assume the aggressive, Collins and his officers watched the Mongols raising up their mimic fortresses on the northern point. With practised skill, each company soon enclosed itself with a breastwork, from above which its particular standard flapped lazily in the evening breeze.
On the south the cavalry hung like a cloud.
‘They mean to have us,’ said Musgrave, glancing uneasily at the deliberate preparations of the enemy.
‘Thank God, there isn’t a field-gun among them!’ muttered Collins, closing his glasses. ‘Without artillery they can only starve us out.’
‘Unless it rains again within a week, they’ll be starved out themselves,’ retorted Cameron hopefully; ‘the surface water lying about won’t last a force such as theirs long.’
Hatten, who was standing by, said nothing; he felt it would be cruel to kill the old man’s hope, but both he and Collins well knew that the arrival of guns was at most only a question of hours.
That night every man slept at his post; that is, if anyone within the Fort slept at all. The women certainly did not. Filled with the near reality of a peril, supreme, and yet so abhorrent that they shrank from discussing its awful climax, the women, when their work was over, sat round Mrs. Musgrave. At times, when Hope’s lamp burns dim, and the hollow echoes of Death’s implacable footsteps draw near, mankind insensibly calls upon its God. Face to face with a foe who will not be denied by human skill, man, be he ever so gross, recognising that Death laughs at the material, turns his eyes at last to the spiritual.
It is our dernier ressort in face of the inevitable. The act of a coward probably, still, but for all that and because of it, intensely human. For a like reason we draw nearer to one better than ourselves in moments of extreme peril. Perhaps we deem it is well to leave for the unknown in good company.
To-night the women gathered round old Mrs. Musgrave, and, after the manner of their kind, prayed; for the old saw ‘that men must work and women must pray’ still held good, at any rate in emergencies such as the present.
All women pray, if it be only to ask God to keep them beautiful; but most of these gathered round the President’s wife were honest, pure-souled girls and wives who asked for help as from a trusted guide rather than a forgotten and dimly-understood power. Unlike the majority of humanity, they did not regard God as on a par with a nauseous if potent drug, only to be sought after in extremes, and to be carefully avoided with returning health.
Out in the darkness the men waited behind the barricades.
Now that the infantry were up, Collins knew that an attack might be made at any moment, if only to feel the strength of the besieged. Beyond the defences a few lynx-eyed black boys were acting as scouts, so that a surprise was well-nigh impossible.
Fearful as to the alertness of his willing but raw material, Hatten spent his time in going round the works, and at last, just about that gloom-clad hour when the night begins to die, he entered the north-west bastion.
Round the gun the men were lying discussing the enemy, and emphasizing their arguments with original and more or less ingenious profanity.
‘Good God!’ exclaimed Billy the Kid with more fervour than actual reverence, ‘you don’t mean to tell me that I can’t belt six bloomin’ chows!’
‘We shall see when ze time arrive,’ replied the old Frenchman with whom he was arguing.
‘Look here, Frenchy, d’ye take me for a bloomin’ waster?’ asked Billy hotly.
‘Non, non, mon brave! it is you who take ze Mongol for one.’
‘So he is’ — stoutly.
‘Pardon, it is not so. Ze man you vill have to fight is not vat you would call ze common chow. If led as these are by European officers, he’s nomber, he’s obedience to authority, and he’s personal bravery must make him almost irrezestible.’
‘How the blazes do you know?’
‘I have met ze gentleman years back in Tonquin,’ replied the old soldier quietly, ‘bayonet to bayonet. Doubtless, mon beau Beeley, you will soon likewise be able to joodge for yourself.’
‘I ain’t much up in these ’ere jobbers,’ growled Billy; ‘but I’ll back myself to shoot mosquitoes on the wing agin any blarsted chinkie in the push.’
‘Go on; what yer given’ us?’ sneered a Hughenden man.
‘Send I might live,’ retorted Billy, ‘and I’d take these Johns with the bare “mud-scratchers” — one down next come on. Gor blow me! ain’t they got chests like drinks o’ water!’
‘I was talkin’ about your shootin’,’ drawled the man who had last spoken.
‘Right; and you’ll have the straight wire about it, too,’ said Billy. ‘A couple of months ago, on the Downs, I went out to get a duck for the missus. Well, on the t’other side of Scottie’s Lagoon, I sees a dozen roosting in a line along a coolibah log. Slipping a ball in, I says to myself, “Blowed if I don’t knock the heads off the lot!” Down I drops; but just as I pulls the blarsted trigger, a blarsted branch falls plump across the barrel. “Blarst it!” says I. But so help me never, when the smoke clears I sees every bloomin’ duck still there a-flapping and quacking like mad.’
‘As true as I live!’ protested Billy; ‘I runs across, and what d’ye think I finds?’
‘That you’d been havin’ a dream.’
‘No bloomin’ fear! I finds the ball had hit the log just below the ducks’ feet, and blow me if they hadn’t all fallen into the split it made! Then it closed and caught ’em, so I rings their necks and fetches the lot home. Didn’t I, Capten?’
Billy never got Hatten’s answer, for even as the words were on his lips, a rifle-shot rang out, and almost simultaneously the bugles sounded, and broad streams of light shot from the summit of the club-house far into the night.
As the electric flashes fell upon them, the Mongols sent up a deafening yell. But held in hand by their leaders, the men behind the defences remained silent.
On the northern front the attacking infantry now poured in a terrific fire from their automatic rifles, all the more appalling in that no report drowned the fierce hail of bullets which beat against the logs.
‘Wait for them, men!’ shouted Keith; ‘this devil’s tattoo won’t hurt much.’
While the infantry were advancing, the cavalry now dismounted, and, armed with their carbines, made a determined attack on the southern barricade.
Pursuing similar tactics to Keith, Johnson let them blaze away and waited. Meantime the men on the parapet of the club-house lay behind the bags glancing along their barrels.
‘Surely they are within range, Colonel?’ exclaimed Musgrave.
‘Possibly; but I want every shot to tell,’ replied the Colonel.
Emboldened by the silence, the Mongols now began to close for their final rush. Then the Colonel said sharply, ‘Now, men, let every bullet mean a yellow devil! Fire!’
In an instant the roof of the club-house was enveloped in smoke, out of which rushed red tongues of flame.
Sword in hand, the Mongol officers led on their men, who, galled by the riflemen’s fire, now rushed on the barricades with yells of defiance and rage.
Directing the full force of his attack on the northern front, the Mongol commander made a furious demonstration against the gate. When the Mongols were less than a hundred yards from the outer ditch, the men behind the palisades opened fire. Met at point-blank range, the enemy fell in scores; but, splendidly led, they still came on, thinned by each successive discharge, but undaunted. At last they reached the ditch and began, in face of the defenders, to throw their storming bridges across at points where the fire was slackest. But now the machine-guns opened fire, and raked both in front and on either flank by foes they could not see, the stormers fell back on their supports.
Knowing that the Commander-in-Chief would be with him on the following morning, the officer in charge of the besiegers was keenly anxious to carry the Fort before his arrival. The repulse first sustained showed him that this was no easy matter, and that, to be successful, he must be prepared to sacrifice his men without stint. This, however, cost him no uneasiness. Accustomed to Asiatic warfare, the question of human life never entered into his calculations, save as a means to an end.
His soldiers’ present use was to win him the favour of Leroy, by carrying the position which delayed the advance, so he decided to again attempt it without regard to the certain and necessary loss which must ensue.
Inside the Fort a feeling of exultation prevailed. The dreaded enemy had been hurled back almost without the loss of a man, and now the one desire of the defenders was to sally out and complete his rout. In spite of what their officers had said, the Mongols were only Chinamen — mongrels like all their countrymen. At least, so the majority of the men behind the barricades thought, and said, flushed with the excitement of their first and, as it happened, successful ‘brush’ with an actual enemy.
Permeated with the sickening and indiscriminate adulation which England had poured over all things colonial during the past ten years, these undisciplined warriors most illogically deemed themselves invincible. Had not imperial commandants and successive governors told them so? And now actual experience came to prove it.
Crowding round their officers, the men demanded to be led against the enemy.
Recognising that he was in some sort to blame for this insanity, Colonel Collins hesitated. But, not handicapped by the memory of past parade orations, Dick Hatten answered them.
‘Don’t be a lot of damned fools!’ said he. ‘You fight well enough behind cover. Stop there!’
As he spoke, the rifles of the scouts again rang out.
‘To your posts, men!’ shouted Collins. ‘Fire low and keep your heads!’
Taking advantage of every inequality in the ground, the Mongol stormers again crept on through the gloom; but again the quick-eyed blacks sighted the advancing columns, and firing their rifles, the scouts retired under the cover of the palisades.
As the first report fell on his ear, Musgrave sprang to the electric battery and connected the current. Then, as the whole wild scene became lit up, he looked over the parapet.
The Fort itself was enveloped in a cordon of smoke, out of which incessant tongues of flame rushed, followed by that dread crackling chorus which belongs peculiarly to Bush fires and volleys of musketry.
Beyond the circle of smoke, but ever drawing nearer, crept hundreds of shadowy forms. He could see the light glint on their rifle-barrels as they brought them to the shoulder, yet neither smoke nor sound came forth from the phantom tubes. Still beneath him he could see an occasional man sink forward, or spring upwards, in his death-agony, and about his ears the ping of passing bullets told the watcher that death lurked in the voiceless rifles of the foe. Now little space remained between the smoke-cloud and the enemy. With his night-glasses he could catch the wolfish glare in the stormers’ eyes, as, treading over their dead companions, they rushed on the points of the flame-tongues.
A gleam of sword-blades, a red light on the bayonets, a wild mingling of shots and fierce, hoarse yells, then a cloud of smoke, and Musgrave saw nothing more.
Mad with the riot of the battle, the old man grasped his sword, and rushed down the stairway and on to the barricades.
This time the stormers reached the palisades. Reckless as to death, and led by men whose trade was war, fatalism and the lust of plunder rendered them fearless as tigers who have tasted blood. Standing on the narrow space before the hanging logs, they thrust their bayonets between them, and tore fiercely with their fingers at the swaying timber.
Meeting thrust with thrust, the defenders hurled back each yellow face into the already corpse-strewn ditch. As before, the brunt of the attack fell on the northern point. But this time the Mongol leader, leaving the southern line almost unassaulted, concentrated every available man in an attack on the four bastions. This he was able to do under comparative cover from the nature of the ground.
Forced to defend their guns, the men in the bastions were unable to keep up a constant fire across the northern face, and taking advantage of this, the Mongols kept up a desperate assault on Major Keith’s line of defence.
Suddenly above the tumult, a blare of trumpets rang out, and like magic the Mongols melted away.
Blackened with smoke, and with their clothes torn with bayonet-thrusts and stained with sweat and blood, the defenders watched the retiring enemy in grim silence. No word of following them fell from the firmset lips; each man had realized, in the minutes just past, that Death fought in the forefront of the foe, and that now they must wait for him — if needs be, yield to him — on the ground where they stood. In the ditch at their feet, and on the trampled grass beyond, lay a ghastly company, some with arms rigidly in air, others with legs drawn and fixed, and many with trunks horribly distorted by the final muscular action at the last moment of life. There lay Major Keith, and not far away President Musgrave knelt, semi-erect, one knee against a bank of earth, his arm laid on the low breastwork in front. In the hollow of his other hand lay a rifle.
Kneeling down, Hatten put his hand over Keith’s heart. ‘Gone, poor chap!’ he muttered. Then, rising, he laid his hand on Musgrave’s shoulder. ‘The Colonel wants you, sir,’ he said. Then, as the President did not move, he leant forward, and looked into his face. A dark mark in the centre of the forehead, from which an ugly discoloured substance oozed, made answer for the old man. ‘My God!’ exclaimed Dick. Turning to some men who were removing the wounded, their Adjutant ordered them to place the body of the father of Fort Mallarraway in one of the cottages, and then hurried away to the club-house.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 312-323