Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command Caught At Last

The Yen-fu and the Tung-yen were mere motionless hulks, lying inert upon the bosom of the sunlit, shot-torn sea, the one with her rudder and propeller blown away by a torpedo that had all but sent her to the bottom, the other with her engines badly broken down, the result of Chinese officials having stolen and disposed of many parts, which had had to be roughly replaced at the last moment. They were both fighting fiercely, however, like tough old wolves at bay, and, although hemmed in by several Japanese cruisers, were as yet giving back almost as good as they got. The game was up for them, though, as they were quite unable to manoeuvre, and only the thickness of their armour and the light calibre of the guns of the ships opposed to them had prevented them from going down long before. Frequently, too, Frobisher noticed, there were long pauses between the discharges of the Yen-fu's and the Tung-yen's great guns, as well as those of others of the Chinese ships; and he made a shrewd guess that these were the occasions when the faulty, charcoal-filled cartridges failed to explode. The Shan-si, with Captain James in command, was practically the only entirely undamaged ship still possessed by the Chinese--not because she had not been in the thickest of the fight, for she had, but just through one of those curious chances of warfare which are constantly occurring. She was doing sovereign service, rushing here, there, and everywhere, planting her shells coolly and accurately, and sweeping the Japanese decks with rifle and machine-gun fire; and many were the attempts made by the enemy's destroyers to torpedo her and put her safely out of harm's way. But, thanks to her captain's skill and his personal care of everything pertaining to his ship, neither was she badly hit, nor did her machinery break down at a critical moment; and she went her relentless way, dealing death and destruction about her unchecked.
The Yung-chau and Kau-ling were being engaged by the Hiroshima, Naniwa , and the Okinoshima--each of which was much larger than either of the Chinese ships--and were getting a terrible punishing. Although still moving, and more or less under control, they were leaking steam and smoke from every crevice and opening, and ominous spirals of smoke were filtering up through the Yung-chau's decks. She had been set on fire close to her bunkers by a Japanese shell, and, almost in less time than it takes to write it, was a mass of roaring, spouting flame, for she was old, and blazed like a volcano. Her men--such of them as could reach the decks--jumped overboard, and were hauled by ropes up the sides of whichever ships happened to be nearest; for the Japanese, like their opponents, had discarded all their boats and pontoons before going into action.
The Chen Yuen and Ting Yuen were busily engaged in hammering away at the biggest of the enemy, the Yoshino, the Shikishima, Fuji, and Niitaka, and it was to relieve the two battleships, which were being somewhat severely handled, that Frobisher determined to charge the Yoshino with his ship.
Signalling once more for full steam, and firing as he went, according to his former tactics, he drove the Chih' Yuen at her utmost speed toward the Japanese flagship, which by this time had lost one of her military masts and her forward funnel, from whose torn base smoke and flame were pouring voluminously, wrapping the conning-tower round as though with a black mantle, and utterly preventing her skipper from seeing what was going on. He, poor man, was obliged to rely entirely upon the discretion of the gunnery-lieutenant in her forward turret; and that this individual was doing his duty well was proved by the frequency with which his guns boomed out, sending shell and solid shot spattering against the heavily-armoured sides of the Chinese battleships, where they splintered and burst, cracking and starring the thick steel, but very seldom penetrating to their vitals, close though the range was.
As the Chih' Yuen clove her way through the water, one of the Japanese destroyers discharged a torpedo at her, which missed her by inches only. It was not wasted, however, for it struck the disabled Yen-fu, which heeled over as though pressed by some gigantic hand, and a few minutes later went down, taking her crew with her.
The Hiroshima also tried to ram in her turn, leaving the stricken Kau-ling for that purpose; but she also was too late. The Naniwa and the Shikishima saw the Chih' Yuen approaching, like the messenger of death she was, and backed away from their opponents; the Fuji turned her guns on the approaching vessel; but the Yoshino's captain, blinded by smoke from the wrecked funnel, did not see what was coming until it was too late, and a moment later the Chinese ship crashed into his stern, unfortunately striking a glancing blow instead of a direct one, as Frobisher had intended.
It was severe enough, however, to make the Yoshino shiver from stem to stern, from truck to keelson; and as the Chih' Yuen drove past, Frobisher saw that he had sliced a great gash in her port quarter nearly down to the water-line, and dismounted both the guns in her after turret. The attempt had not entirely succeeded, but it had done a great deal of damage, and with that he had to be content.
Then, as Frobisher circled his ship round to come into action again, he saw something that made him gasp with astonishment and apprehension. There was a fight of some sort going on upon the deck of the Chinese flagship herself! What on earth could it mean? She had not been close enough to any of the enemy's ships to enable them to board her, and, moreover, they were Chinese sailors, not Japanese, who were fighting. What could possibly have happened? The seamen on board were entirely devoted to their admiral, and if any mutiny had arisen it must be through the machinations of some other person, some traitor who had seized this opportunity to--
By Jove, he had it! All his old suspicions came thronging into his mind in an instant, and in that same instant he believed he could make a very good guess at what had occurred. Of course it was that scoundrel, Prince Hsi, who was at the bottom of the mischief; Frobisher seemed to know it instinctively. He also recollected the numerous occasions on which his Highness had acted in an extremely suspicious manner, to say the least; and it did not take him long to guess that he was now beholding the consummation of a plot up to which Hsi had been leading for some considerable time past. But what had happened to Admiral Ting, he wondered, that Prince Hsi should have matters all in his own hands? Frobisher knew that so long as the gallant admiral was alive, or conscious, he would never permit his command to be taken from him thus; and his heart fell, for he feared that the traitor, to attain his detestable ends, must first have killed the brave old man.
Well, Frobisher vowed to himself, the traitor should not succeed in his scheme, whatever it might be, even though he had to board the Ting Yuen himself, and slay Prince Hsi with his own hands, to avenge the death of the admiral.
And then he saw what it was that the traitor prince intended. The commotion on the deck of the flagship had ceased, the mutineers having either slain or driven overboard all those who opposed them, and, while Frobisher's ship was still some distance away, he saw the Chinese flag flutter down from the Ting Yuen's peak, to be immediately replaced by the Japanese naval ensign; and the ship herself swung round in the direction of the enemy's squadron and began to forge ahead toward it, Prince Hsi having evidently determined to turn his guns against his own countrymen.
As the Japanese ensign fluttered aloft there fell a sudden silence over both fleets. As though by mutual consent every gun was hushed for a few moments, and hoarse, stern, and menacing above the strange stillness rose a roar of execration from the throats of the Chinese, as they at last realised the meaning of the extraordinary scene that had just taken place aboard the flagship.
Defiantly her captain trained his guns on the nearest Chinese ships and fired; but whether his gunners could not bring themselves to the actual point of firing on their country's flag, or whether it was due to the excitement of the moment, every shot missed, and a shout of derision went up from the Chinese squadron.
But Captain Frobisher knew that curses and shouts of execration would not bring back the Ting Yuen. If she was to be saved to the Chinese Navy she must not be allowed to gain the shelter of the Japanese main body. If she reached that, she would be lost for ever, and the day would be lost beyond hope of redemption for the Chinese. To lose one powerful battleship, and to find another suddenly arrayed against them-- for that is what it would of course amount to--would so weaken the already enfeebled Chinese strength that success would be out of the question; and the Englishman determined that, come what might, he would prevent the traitor prince from carrying out his foul intentions.
He shouted a few brief commands to Drake, who vanished like a puff of smoke from the conning-tower; issued an order to the quartermaster at the wheel; and rang to the engine-room the two short calls that signified that he required all the power the engines could develop, for a sudden emergency. Then he looked to see that his sword was loose in its scabbard and his revolver fully charged, and waited for Drake to reappear, while the Chih' Yuen, bounding forward under the full power of her engines, turned her nose toward the stern of the Ting Yuen and kept it fixed there, relentless as fate.
By this time the cannonade had again become general throughout the fleet, but ringing high above the crashing roar of the guns could be heard the wild cheering of the Chinamen as they realised the gallant exploit that the English captain was about to attempt.
Prince Hsi realised it also, and put on full steam to escape, but he was a few minutes too late. Before the unwieldy battleship could get into her stride the more nimble cruiser would be upon her, and, knowing that he could not hope to reach safety before he was overtaken, the Prince determined to wait and fight the matter out with the Englishman whom he had already learnt to hate so intensely. He therefore reversed his engines, trained every available gun upon the advancing Chih' Yuen, and opened fire.
The cruiser reeled and quivered as the hurricane of shot and shell struck her, but she received no injury to her vital parts, and was checked not a moment in her headlong course. Frobisher had given orders that his fire was to be reserved until he himself gave the word, and he now watched for that moment as a tiger watches its prey.
A few seconds later the time arrived. Frobisher pressed the button that let loose the storm of death upon the flagship, rang off his engines, handed over the command to Drake, who had just reappeared, and then left the conning-tower.
On the port side of the deck, behind the steel citadel, he found that Drake had already drawn up the fifty volunteers he had called for, fully armed, and ready to follow their captain wherever he might choose to lead.
A second later there arose from the Ting Yuen a chorus of yells of astonishment and fury as the Chih' Yuen, instead of lying off and fighting with her guns, as Prince Hsi had expected, ground her sides against those of the flagship, and came to a standstill right alongside.
Frobisher shouted a word of command to the expectant sailors, and led them round the citadel, across the cruiser's decks, and up on to those of the battleship, before the Ting Yuen's men realised what was happening. Most of the latter had thrown off their cutlasses, the better to handle their guns, and it was on their unpreparedness that Frobisher relied when he led his fifty boarders to the attack.
Like a whirlwind he swept down upon the rebel seamen, who stood petrified with alarm and astonishment beside the now useless guns, and the broad-bladed cutlasses rose and fell for a few seconds to the accompaniment of shrieks and yells for mercy. But Frobisher, with his small force, could not afford to give quarter until it was certain that there would be no more resistance; and, much as he detested the butchery, he simply dared not stay his hand. Forward and upward he and his men cut their way; they encountered more and more opposition every minute, as the mutineers found time to recover their wits and secure their weapons, but his men would take no denial. Their blades, now dyed a deep red, swept through the smoky air, and their revolvers crackled and blazed merrily, as the Englishman led them forward; and presently, after a stern and stubborn five minutes' fighting, the rebels broke and fled below--overboard--anywhere to escape the avenging swords of their outraged countrymen.
So far, Frobisher had seen nothing of Prince Hsi; but the moment the mutineers were broken and he had released the remnant of the loyal Chinese sailors, he went in search of the arch-traitor himself, having first headed both ships back toward the Chinese squadron.
The Prince was not in the conning-tower, as Frobisher discovered when he went there with one of his own helmsmen to send the necessary orders to the engine-room, nor was he in his own cabin, which was the next most likely place to look for him; and diligently as Frobisher searched, the man was not to be found. He appeared to have vanished completely. Perhaps, Frobisher decided, the traitor had seen that his shameful plot had failed, and had thrown himself overboard to avoid the consequences of his act. That, however, did not seem quite like Hsi; he was more likely to be up to some deeper villainy still; and as this thought occurred to the Chih' Yuen's captain his blood ran cold, for some sixth sense or instinct seemed to warn him what Hsi was about.
With every nerve tingling, Frobisher darted below and began to search for the magazine, for it was thither he guessed the traitor had betaken himself; and it was indeed fortunate that he found it just where he had expected it to be.
The door of the magazine was open, and a man was to be seen inside, with his back to the entrance, engaged upon his diabolical work by the aid of a carefully-shaded lantern. Another few seconds and Frobisher would have been too late, and the ship would have been blown into the air with all her crew; for the Prince was even then applying a light to the end of the fuse which he had already cut, the other extremity of which was concealed from view.
Frobisher repressed a shiver of horror, and with one bound flung himself upon the traitor, dropping sword and revolver as he did so. This was a case for the use of bare hands alone, man to man; the discharge of a pistol might only complete Hsi's work for him, and Frobisher did not feel that he could cut the man down from behind, in cold blood, richly as he deserved it, and as the man himself would undoubtedly have done, had the positions been reversed. He gripped the sacred person of the Prince round the body, and endeavoured to hurl him to the floor and so stun him; but Hsi was a powerful man, and although taken at a disadvantage, managed to twist himself so that Frobisher's superior strength expended itself in vain.
Then, with a mighty effort, he wrenched one arm free and seized the Englishman by the throat, sinking in his fingers with a fury that testified all too plainly to the intensity of his hatred.
Do what he might, Frobisher could not wrench the traitor's fingers away; and although with his left hand he managed to prevent Hsi from drawing the knife suspended from his belt, he knew that unless he could release himself from that bulldog grip, he must very soon lose consciousness, for already his eyes were beginning to protrude, the dim light of the magazine seemed full of flashing stars and blazing fireworks, and the blood drummed horribly in his ears. Besides, good heavens! there was that deadly spark hissing and sputtering its way along the fuse, and unless it was quenched within a minute, the Ting Yuen and her crew would be flying skyward, a cloud of splintered steel and dismembered human bodies.
This last thought gave Frobisher back his strength for a moment, and with a herculean effort he wrenched his throat from Hsi's grip; then, recovering himself quickly, before the Chinaman had his knife more than half-way out of its sheath, he drew back his arm and struck Hsi a mighty blow full on the point of the chin.
The Prince's neck clicked like a breaking stick, and he was dashed senseless against the steel walls of the magazine, falling in a tumbled heap upon the floor. Without looking to see whether the man was unconscious or not, Frobisher dashed at the fuse and trampled it fiercely underfoot until the smouldering spark was entirely extinguished; then, with a sob of relief, he withdrew its other end from a pile of explosives and tossed it out of the door.
Then he lifted Hsi on his shoulders, carried him out of the magazine, closing the door after him, and took him to his own cabin, where he deposited the senseless body in its bunk, afterwards securing the Prince's wrists and ankles firmly with some lengths of rope which he procured from one of the men. This done, he locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and went in search of the admiral, whom he fully expected to find dead. At the same moment he heard the Ting Yuen's guns again opening overhead, as her temporary commander brought her into action once more, and he smiled grimly as he thought that, if Hsi had had his way, the shells from those very weapons would at this minute have been crashing their way through Chinese hulls, instead of being directed, as they were, against the Japanese ships.
Frobisher found Admiral Ting lying on the floor of his cabin, his hands lashed behind him, and senseless from a severe cutlass or sword cut across the forehead. He had evidently been cut down while in the conning-tower, and had been brought to the cabin and there secured and flung down; for the Englishman had noticed a trail of bloodstains on the deck on his way to Ting's quarters.
In a very short time he had cut the old gentleman adrift, and after a few drops of brandy had been forced down his throat, Ting quickly revived, and gave Frobisher an account of what had occurred.
It was short, but to the point. Hsi had entered the conning-tower with a drawn sword in his hand, and before the admiral could open his mouth the Prince had ruthlessly cut him down. After that the admiral knew no more until he awoke to find Frobisher pouring spirit and water down his throat.
He was profuse in his thanks to the young Englishman, and, when he had learned from the latter all that had happened, promised that he would never forget the brave deed by which he had been rescued from eternal shame and dishonour. Then, despite his wound, which Frobisher roughly bandaged, the plucky old fellow insisted upon going on deck again and taking charge.
But when the two men regained the open, what a sight met their horrified eyes! The Kau-ling, which, although dismantled, had been fighting bravely when Frobisher led his boarders away, had disappeared, and the Tung-yen, the engines of which had broken down, had been surrounded by five Japanese ships, and was even then sinking. The Yung-chau, which had taken fire early in the fight, was now but an abandoned, charred wreck; and even the gallant Shan-si and Chen Yuen, which had done great deeds ever since the beginning, were now terribly damaged. Frobisher's own ship, a short distance away, under Drake's able seamanship was still giving a splendid account of herself, but even she, Frobisher's experienced eye could tell, was very badly mauled.
In short, of the ten ships which China had possessed that morning four were destroyed, one had crept away too seriously damaged to remain in action, one had gone as convoy to the transports, and the remaining four were all badly damaged. As for the torpedo-boats, the Japanese destroyers and smaller cruisers had made short work of them. Of the seven, three were sunk, one had been captured, two had fled toward Wei-hai-wei hotly pursued by a big Japanese destroyer, and only one remained with the remnant of the Chinese fleet.
The Japanese had lost only three small cruisers and a destroyer, so that their fleet was even now almost as numerous as China's had been at the beginning of the battle. True, the Yoshino and the Fuji were little better than wrecks, and the other ships had one and all received a very severe drubbing; but they were still afloat and more or less under control, while their undamaged guns now outnumbered those of the Chinese by about six to one.
The odds were too heavy. To keep on fighting with the four remaining ships against the still powerful Japanese fleet would be simply throwing those four ships away to no purpose, and shedding China's best blood without avail. If those two battleships and two cruisers could still be retained for China, they would live to fight another day, for with the addition of the southern squadron, still intact and undamaged, they would once more make up a powerful fleet; but if they were lost or captured now, that would be the end of them, and possibly the end of China also.
Ting realised all this at a glance, and with a bitter groan ordered the signal to retire to be hoisted--the enemy to be held at bay, if possible, while the evolution was being carried out.
As it was manifestly impossible for Frobisher to rejoin his own ship, owing to lack of boats, he took charge as captain of the Ting Yuen in place of the traitor prince, confined below, and, in company with the other battleship, the Chen Yuen, endeavoured to beat off the Japanese craft that were manoeuvring to surround the two remaining Chinese cruisers. And so bold a front--or rather, rear--did the four ships present that the Japanese before long relinquished the pursuit, not caring, in view of the success already obtained, to risk losing any more of their already sadly-battered ships by exposing them to the now-concentrated fire of the big Chinese ships' eighty-ton guns, the projectiles from which had already done so much damage.
They accordingly drew off and gave up the half-hearted chase, employing the short time still remaining before darkness fell in effecting some very necessary repairs to their ships; while the broken remnant of China's northern squadron pursued its halting way toward Wei-hai-wei, the small torpedo-boat still remaining to them acting as scout in advance, on the look-out for the Japanese destroyer which, earlier in the day, had left the action in pursuit of a couple of damaged Chinese torpedo-boats.
In the late twilight they fell in with the destroyer on her return from her unsuccessful pursuit, the two small craft having succeeded in effecting their escape. She had evidently anticipated a complete victory for her own side, and seeing lights in the distance, had made for them, thinking that, by this time, every ship would be in Japanese hands; and she did not discover her mistake until she was under the Chinese guns. Then she attempted to cut and run; but she was too late. There was a rattle of machine-gun fire which drove her men from the deck torpedo-tubes, and a few seconds later one of the Chen Yuen's big guns plumped a shell right into her, crumpling her up like cardboard and sending her to the bottom within a few seconds. Some--a very few--of her men were rescued and made prisoners by the Chinese torpedo-boat, but the majority, dead or disabled from the effects of the bursting shell, went to feed the sharks.
Early the following morning, just after daybreak, the four ships overtook the San-chau and the transport fleet, which circumstance rejoiced Admiral Ting exceedingly, as he had been extremely anxious lest they might perhaps have fallen in with some prowling Japanese cruisers and been snapped up. Then the war-ships and the transports kept company until they reached Wei-hai-wei, where they found the little Hat-yen, but recently arrived in a sinking condition, so that it had been necessary to beach her immediately to save her from sinking at her anchors.
Admiral Ting lost no time in docking such of his ships as there was room for; the others were run alongside the wharves, to have their guns replaced and their upper-works repaired, after which they would, one by one, go into dock as their repaired sisters came out. The admiral then dispatched to Tien-tsin the San-chau, the only undamaged war-ship, with an account of the battle; while the torpedo-boat, after a few minor repairs, was dispatched south with a similar message to Admiral Wong-lih, suggesting that he should bring up the southern fleet, so that, together, the united squadrons might seek the Japanese fleet and once more give battle, in an attempt to recover the mastery of the sea, which was of paramount importance to China.

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