The Feet of Clay
Ships that pass in the night
In the evening of April 1, 1912, two white men were camping upon a sandy rise overlooking Junction Bay, Northern Territory, Australia. Theirs was a strange presence, at a strange time, in those strange surroundings. But it is just as well that accident or fate had thrown them there, for otherwise this fragment of contemporary history — as matter-of-fact and unemotional as all history must be — would have been bereft even of a picturesque beginning. The air was pleasantly cooling after sunset, under the influence of a light eastern breeze which wafted along the night sounds of many animals from the direction of the lagoon. Low in the western sky the crescent of the young moon hung just atop of the tall timber. Towards the sea everything was very quiet. The sands extended far out to where a broad belt of blue mud deadened the soft ripple of the receding tide.
On the high ground, bare but for scattered tufts of grass, the men were safe from creeping things and mosquitoes. The calm beauty of the night invited to a long vigil of smoking and talking. Naturally, the Northern Territory — its vastness its present state and future prospects — was the topic of conversation. Both men had been animated by the same hopes to try their fortunes there. Now that only a few pompous formalities remained to be gone through before the transfer of the enormous, empty province to the Commonwealth would be complete, a booming prosperity could not fail to come, and they had hastened to the spot to be in its van.
The elder of the two was clearly an Australian by birth — tall, darkish, of that looseness of limb which denotes the breed. His name was Thomas Burt. He was a prospector and miner, and acted, like many others, as a self-appointed pioneer for British Capital, which was expected to become interested once more in the great mineral wealth of the country. Lately he had explored the district south and east of Pine Creek, and returning to this place for a spell, he had there made the acquaintance of his companion, a Yorkshireman, who had imported a stock of merchandise from Sydney into Port Darwin.
The two adventurers, attended by Burt’s black boy, had departed from Port Darwin in a northeasterly direction. The Australian scorned beaten tracks, and they had headed straight for the wilderness. Exploration in the season immediately after the rainfalls, which had ceased early this year, was indeed a rare pleasure. Fresh water was still met with in every hollow, and game abounded. Bush and jungle looked now their grandest and loveliest. Nearer the coast the landscape became more brilliant in colour and variety. The fascination of the interminable solitudes enveloped them until they made up their minds to push right on to the sea. They kept as much as possible to the watershed, where progress was comparatively easy, away from the impenetrable network of creeks and flood-channels, overgrown by rank vegetation. So it happened, that after a leisurely ride of nine days, they emerged upon Junction Bay.
When the faint gurgle of flowing-in waves marked the turn of the tide through the utter stillness, Thomas Burt rose to stretch his limbs, and sauntered sleepily along the crest. The night was so clear that stars visible just above the horizon showed like signal lamps of ships skimming over the dark expanse of ocean. But the Australian did not look for lights out at sea; well he knew that the course for steamers lay far out of the danger-zone of islands and reefs which guard our continent to the north, and that proas, junks or small traders which might venture closer inshore did not waste good oil in those parts. Yet something must have caught his attention, for he peered out a good while over the murmuring waters. Suddenly he gave a sharp whistle, and faced round to his mate dozing beside the dying embers of the fire. He soundly shook the sleeper, and shouted in his ear —
“Rouse yourself and look over this anthill. Take your glass.”
The Yorkshireman stumbled to his feet. Several miles out he espied a gleam which unquestionably came from a well-trimmed ship’s lantern.
“It can’t be a steamer,” Thomas Burt commented; “they don’t show their noses round here for fear of smashing ’em in. As for other navigators hereabouts, they have not the reputation of burning bonfires on their boats.”
He dropped his field-glass lazily. His friend continued watching through his. “I see two lights now,” he said.
The Australian re-applied his glass. “It must be a steamer, then,” he remarked. “They may be drifting.”
They kept a silent watch for some time. From the shore rose the odour of organic things decomposing in stagnant brine. Again Thomas Burt spoke.
“It’s two ships. They kept in line, but now they are steering different courses right into the bay.”
The Yorkshireman shivered slightly in the freshness of the small hours. “We might give them a fire signal,” he said.
“Steady!” replied the other. “There’s no fog. They’ve passed the bar a long way. Ah!” He gave a little gasp of surprise, for he had discerned yet more lights. “It’s a whole fleet; they are manoeuvring. There is purpose behind this. Our help won’t be wanted.”
“Well,” queried the Yorkshireman, “what does it mean, Mr. Know-all?”
The Australian hazarded a conclusion: “I’ll tell you. The Singapore squadron is on a training cruise, though what they are doing here I can’t guess.”
His friend laughed. “Perhaps a new idea to dispose of the scrap-iron ships your people make so much row about. Piling them a-top some reef.”
At this moment a solitary red rocket shot up from the nearest steamer, vanishing in a luminous haze. A merry twinkle of lights from the more distant ships answered the signal.
“You see it is a naval affair,” said Thomas Burt.
The other had a bright notion. “O, yes,” he said, “and I can also inform you that it isn’t the Australian Navy, because it has not been built yet.”
“Lie down flat,” whispered the Australian, dropping to the ground himself.
From the leading vessel, which was bearing inshore gradually, and had approached to within three miles, the beam of a strong searchlight had been flashed on the land, and was now sweeping the shore. After less than two minutes’ play it was masked again.
Through sand and scant grass the two travellers shuffled on all fours until they gained the inner slope of the rise. The Yorkshireman placed a trembling hand on the Australian’s shoulder. “All this is so unaccountable,” he breathed.
Thomas Burt lifted his head cautiously over the crest. The other lights were drawing closer. “Evidently they know what they are looking for,” he said, frowning. “It did not take them long to find out, anyhow, since they have not turned on that ray again. I wonder if they calculated to have unasked eye-witnesses at this performance.”
“But we’ll have to think of ourselves, mate,” his friend broke in.
The Australian nodded. They covered the ashes of their fire carefully with sand. A call, like the wail of a night-bird, summoned the black servant, who had been soundly asleep near the horses. By order of his master he saddled the animals, and led them further inland behind some thick scrub. The friends examined their guns and pistols, and returned to their posts. It was about two o’clock in the morning, and the tide was near its highest point, almost lapping the base of their lookout.
Five steamers lay in a crescent, stretching east, parallel to the beach. From the forecastle of each, a motionless, blinding cone of light illumined shore and adjacent waters. Although the vessels might be two miles distant, an ever-increasing din could be heard quite distinctly. Suddenly a puffing noise approached, and soon strings of three or four boats, towed by squat motor launches, emerged into the glare.
The friends had to pinch each other to make sure that they were not dreaming.
About the unintelligible event, the tropical night wrapped her scent-laden cloak, pierced only by a soothing, lulling wind and by the gleam of stars shining in calm aloofness on the high-vaulted firmament. As calmly aloof shone those five bluish rays in front of them, pointing the way for some dark Power creeping upon the sleeping continent with the inevitableness of Fate. So far, noise and shadowy glimpses had a curious atmosphere of detachment about them, as if the scene were projected on curling, hissing vapours.
The spell was rudely broken the instant the searchlights beat on the boats, which promptly executed a smart manoeuvre. Within a hundred yards from shore, the motor launch swung round sharply. But the boats had already thrown loose from her and from each other. On they came nearly abreast, still propelled by the impetus of tugging. As this relaxed, two pairs of oars shot out of each boat and pulled strenuously for the beach. Then, as it touched ground, men leaped overboard and dragged it upon dry sand. Each boat disgorged about a score of occupants, who at once, automatically, began to discharge cargo. First, rifles were brought out and built together in the pyramids characteristic of all trained soldiery. A multitude of cases and bags followed. In five minutes the craft were run into the sea again. Three men jumped in, the oars started working, a file was formed and lines were passed between. Some little distance out, the launch hovered, waiting; promptly she caught up, the boats hitched up, and back into the gloom the mysterious procession puffed.
The watchers strained their eyesight in vain to unravel the identity of these nocturnal immigrants. Not more than 300 yards divided them from the nearest group. But as the latter was approximately interposed between the source of light and the observers, it appeared in merely silhouette, in black outlines against the surrounding brightness. It was evident that strict discipline was being enforced. One man alone gave out commands and was hurriedly obeyed. Of his words, it could only be made out that they were not English. Soon the boats landed reinforcements, ever and ever more. All the men seemed very tired; they lay down in the sand to snatch some sleep. This carelessness proved that the new-comers were not in the least afraid of any hostile attack.
When the two friends recognized that they would have to await the break of day for closer investigation, they left their exposed position and returned to the horses, which they found fastened to trees. The boy was away, but he responded to the call with little delay. Pointing to the sea he said, “Them plurry Chinamen.” His senses were sharper, perhaps, and his cat-like agility might have got him very near to the singular visitors. The men looked at one another in silence. Possibly they did not dare to give utterance to their secret suspicions while there was yet hope.
At last dawn paled the east. Along the beach bugles resounded. Some figures appeared on the crest of the rise — still compact black dots against the colouring sky. One pointed to the ground, and shouted. Others ran to join him. The whites knew; the morning glow had revealed their footprints, the imprints of hoofs and other traces of their camp.
Now with the abruptness of tropical latitudes, day broke gloriously. The first slanting rays of the sun lit up many faces on the ridge peering anxiously in their direction. But the thicket hid them well. Both friends focussed their glasses on those multitudinous prying features far off and then exchanged their thoughts in a simultaneous exclamation:
“Japanese! The Japanese!” A bitter curse was added.
Next moment the horses greeted the morning brightness with joyous neighs. Little the brutes knew that they were saluting the Rising Sun. The animals’ cries betrayed the presence of strangers. The Japanese rushed to arms, and volley after volley was poured into the forest. But the whites were safe on their swift horses and glided away in true bushman fashion, never exposing themselves. Only once they turned back and fired one round in reply. One pursuer collapsed, shot down. That was Australia’s welcome to the invaders. Behind, ringing bugle signals died out echoing in the woods — a last menace and challenge. On the two explorers tore to the south-west, to carry the fateful news to the world of white men.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
proas = plural of proa; a proa is swift Malayan sailing canoe with its weather side like that of an ordinary boat, whilst its lee side is flat; the canoe is long and narrow, and is balanced by a cigar-shaped log attached to a frame extending several feet windward; although native to the Ladrone Islands (Mariana Islands) and the Malay archipelago, proas are used in various forms in many areas of the Pacific Ocean