[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
In the depths of the sea.
Night now shrouded the waters of the Gulf, and the clouds spread out their heavy mantles between the stars and the sea. Sobbing in endless discontent, the waves broke across the prow of the Hi Lung as she raced on through the darkness, but their sullen beats against her iron sides woke no answering echoes in the heart of the man who now strode up and down the deck.
Philip Orloff was filled with the ecstasy of a victory such as never was won by the sword on sea or land. The woman he loved was to be his for evermore — well, if not for evermore, until that time when one or other of them had to solve death’s mysteries. But to-night he had little thought save for life — life with her. Then came the thought: Where in all the world could he hope to find a resting-place? Not certainly among the haunts of civilization, for now the East would execrate his name even as the West had done.
But what need he care for all their impotent hate? Heather was now his; and surely in the vast Pacific he could yet find some spot where he could rest forgotten, and forgetting all else but her.
Then he began to wonder what Zenski would think, and, for the sake of the friendship he held for the old Russian, he determined to send him a warning of his intention from Thursday Island. For the others what did it matter? Half of them were already traitors, the remainder soldiers of fortune. Looking ahead, he saw the Mongol army divided and its strength shattered by internal discontent, and the vision filled him with grim satisfaction, for, excepting a few men like Redski, he cared nothing for what became of the rest. Accustomed to regard himself as the head and front of the invasion, Orloff failed to realize that another might arise to take his place, one perhaps who, now the master-mind had left a scheme, might work out the details as successfully as he himself could have done.
Dismissing the past, he began to work out his future plans. Johnson had to be disposed of, and now that he began to meet it face to face, the question of his own disappearance grew less easy of solution.
Leaning against one of the turrets, Orloff fell into so deep a train of thought that he failed to hear Johnson approach him; but as the Australian laid his hand on his shoulder, a sharp call from the bridge made him look up. From the darkness innumerable eyes seemed to glower upon him. Then in a moment he realized what it meant. ‘The Chinese fleet!’ he exclaimed; and the voice of the captain answered back from the bridge, as he signalled to the engine-room to go astern:
‘The lubbers will be into us! Close the water-tight compartments!’
On the starboard bow a dark mass showed not a ship’s length away, and now from her deck hurried words of command floated across the narrow space. But Orloff waited no longer; the thought of Heather’s peril rose before him, and, rushing to the companion-way, he dashed into her state-room just as the iron doors of the bulk-heads shut with a dull crash.
Left to himself, Johnson ran towards the bows of the Hi Lung in obedience to one of those sudden impulses which so often change the course of human lives. As he reached them, the cutwater of the advancing ship crashed into the plates of the Chinese cruiser, and for a little the two vessels lay the one embedded in the other.
Above the cracking of spars and grinding of steel on steel, Ted thought he heard English voices; still, this might mean nothing, for in a service such as the Chinese their presence was likely enough. Like a flash the thought went through his brain, ‘Shall I chance it, or go down where I am?’ Already he could feel the Hi Lung heeling over, and see the bows of the ship that had rammed her drawing clear. A second more, and the alternative would be gone for ever; so, scrambling up on the shattered bulwarks, he leaped for life or death on to the bows of the unknown ship just as a blaze of light lit up the sea in which the Hi Lung was slowly turning bottom upwards. Unnoticed by the sailors, who were now using every effort to keep their own ship afloat, Johnson rose to his feet just in time to see the last of the Chinese man-of-war.
Top-heavy, like all her class, and, in view of taking in supplies at Thursday Island, almost without ballast, the Hi Lung, once she listed, had no chance of righting. Still, as became a daughter of the sea, she went with stately dignity to where the good ships lie on beds of sand, and shelves of rock, and depths unknown save to the dead. On every side strange vessels floated on seas of flame, while from the one which all unwittingly had done this deed a flood of light fell on the dying ship.
Johnson could see her captain standing on the bridge, and round him a group of officers; but keenly as he looked, he could see no sign of either Heather or Leroy. Why the men before him made no effort to save themselves struck him as strange, but no reason came — at least, not then; for now the Hi Lung gave a weary lurch, and as the crew, mad with fear and despair, began to leap from her sides and stern, she suddenly rolled over and shot prow first into the depths below, her propellers reflecting back the rays of the search-lights as they drove her downwards to her grave.
When, realizing that a collision must take place, Orloff rushed into Heather’s state-room, it was with the idea of bringing her on deck; the closing of the bulkheads, however, not only prevented his doing this, but practically made prisoners of them both. Taking the girl in his arms, he rushed to one of the doors, but even as he struck with impotent rage at its iron panels the collision took place, and sent both himself and his burden against the side of the cabin. Pulling himself together, he staggered to the divan and laid his senseless companion tenderly upon it; as he did so, he began to realize that the ship was not only not righting, but that the list became more acute each second. Yes, there was no doubt of it; now he had to hold Heather to prevent her from slipping off the divan. The Hi Lung was going over, and they were trapped like rats, and, like them, must drown. God! if Heather would only awake, only speak to him once! In another minute it would be too late! Down in that fearsome prison he felt the dying ship’s last gasp, and, catching the girl in his arms, he kissed her white, beautiful face, holding her as though in defiance of death itself. Then a shiver ran through the cabin as the propellers rose out of the water, and then he and she lay together on what but a moment ago had been the ceiling. No lamp now burned to show him his position, but as the minutes passed, and death did not come, awful possibilities began to fill his brain.
A gruesome theory put forward after the sinking of the Victoria flashed into his mind. Here, as there, the bulkheads had been closed; the vessel had gone down bottom upwards, but, unlike the English ship, there were no boilers in this one to burst, and so provide a merciful escape for any wretches imprisoned in the air-tight compartments. Alone with his own fearful imaginings, for Heather still lay wrapt in merciful unconsciousness, Orloff crushed back the demons of despair, and, as he sank to his grave, began to calculate how long he and his companion had to live. At best his reckoning was a rough one, but so far as he could judge, seven hours at least, perhaps as much more, still remained for them. For an instant a desire to kill himself, and so leave more air for Heather, came to him, but he put it away. Such sacrifice could only add horror to the final scene; better that she should die in his arms than live a few short hours to die at last alone.
Now the moment that he dreaded, yet of all things desired, came, and Heather recovered consciousness.
Holding her closely to him, he told her the dread story of their imprisonment in the depths of the sea; and when she understood she found his lips, and kissed him, and told him she was well content, as death must come, to meet it here with him.
So in this strange sepulchre these two, who had spent all their lives apart, sat waiting death together, and the woman, partly because she had lived her life ‘in the shadow of the grave,’ but chiefly for the reason that she of all things wished to take this man with her when the hour came, refused to waste with him the minutes in sorrowing for the shortness of their reunion, seeking rather to induce him to prepare to go with her on that last long journey whose starting-post was so close ahead.
* * * * *
Philip Orloff and Heather were dying. The air of the state-room where they lay entombed had of necessity gradually heightened in temperature, and was now saturated with aqueous vapour. For some time Orloff had been possessed of a species of delirium, and the narrow cabin rang now with hoarse words of command, now with bitter exclamations of shame and despair.
Before him the scene at Charleville, where he stood beside the bed of the murdered sisters, rose continually; nor could he blot from his eyes the look of the old man he had saved from the knout on the earthworks. Visions limned in blood and framed with pain floated around him, and even Heather’s voice had now no power to save him from himself.
But now, as the oxygen disappeared and the noxious effects of the carbonic acid became more potent, the dying man’s fancies took other shapes. All was forgotten, save that past when Love and he first met: Heather was again to him the child full of tender possibilities, and he the lover who was to make them blossom into glorious realities.
Lying in his arms, the girl caught his words from the very borders of the Silent Land. Past power of speech, and so close to death’s deep sleep that all things earthly had grown indistinct, she, too, had bridged the intervening years, and now spent the short moments that remained of life in treading once again the gladsome meads of early youth.
So side by side they died down in the depths of the sea. The plants of that cold land where sun is not will clamber over their sepulchre, and strange monsters swim in stupid wonderment round their tomb; but, oblivious alike to the wash of the waves that beat against their prison-house and the restless winds that waft the good ships overhead, these two will lie at rest till the sea gives up her dead.
BILLING AND SONS, PRINTERS, GUILDFORD.
G., C. & Co.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 429-435