Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command The Dragon Awakes

On their way to the dockyard, while passing along the "Street of Many Waters", they heard in the distance the sound of a military band, playing very barbaric music--to English ears, that is to say--but in what was undoubtedly "march" time. Presently they found themselves compelled to halt for about five minutes at a cross street, named "The Lotus", while several companies of a Chinese Line regiment went swinging past on their way to the barracks; and Drake and his companion could not refrain from commenting favourably upon the smart and businesslike appearance of the men.
They were, it appeared, part of a crack corps; and every officer and private seemed fully to realise the fact, and to be proud of it. There was not a single soldier among them standing less than six feet in height, and the majority were broad in proportion. The Navy men whom Frobisher had so far encountered were usually uniformed somewhat after the fashion of European officers and seamen. The officers wore the flat, peaked cap, with a gold dragon in front instead of the crown and anchor, while their jackets and trousers of dark-blue cloth were almost exactly similar to those of our own men, except that the facings, instead of being gold, were of that peculiar shade of blue so much in favour among the Chinese. The ordinary tars wore the conventional dark--blue, baggy trousers, and a blouse of the same colour, cut to a "V" shape at the neck in front, but minus the collar at the back which European seamen have adopted, while the skirt of the blouse was allowed to hang loose outside the trousers, instead of being tucked in. The only essential difference between the Celestial seamen's uniform and our own lay in the cap, which, instead of being flat and dark-blue in colour, was of the conventional Chinese shape and white in colour, with a knob of some soft material on the top. Their pigtails were rolled up and tucked into the crown of these caps--or, more correctly, hats. Their arms consisted of rifles--which, Frobisher noted, were of widely-different patterns, most of them obsolete, although all were breech-loaders--and a kind of cutlass, somewhat similar to the British naval weapon, but with a two-handed hilt, and only a small, circular piece of polished brass for a guard.
The soldiery, however, smart though they were, in no way resembled those of European armies. Their uniforms, all similar of course, consisted of identically the same hat as that worn in the Navy; a white jacket, very long and very loose, with baggy sleeves, the collar, front, and skirt, and the edges of the cuffs all edged with broad Chinese-blue braid; and short and baggy trousers, gathered just below the knee, and tucked into a kind of "puttee" legging, consisting of a long wrapping of white canvas. The trousers were also white, with a Chinese-blue stripe of broad braid down the outside--and, strangely enough, the inside also--of the leg. The boots were eminently sensible and serviceable, and were something like the Red Indian's moccasin, the uppers being made of two thicknesses of deer hide, which were kept on the foot by means of a narrow tape run through eyelets, while the soles were built up of several thicknesses of felt, amounting in all to about an inch and a half. They had an appearance of great clumsiness, but were, as a matter of fact, extremely light, springy, and comfortable. The thickness of the soles, the springiness of the felt, and the absence of heels made the boots particularly easy to march in, and the soldiers were thus able to cover great distances without feeling fatigue. These men, instead of hiding their pigtails under their head-gear, allowed them to hang down; and some of them, Frobisher observed, were of great length, in some cases falling as low as the back of the knee.
For arms the men carried rifles, of a more modern pattern than those in use in the sister service; in fact, they seemed, so far as Frobisher could see without close inspection, to be Martini weapons of the 1879 pattern--a most serviceable and reliable fire-arm, far superior to the modern small-bore rifle in the opinion of soldiers themselves, as a man-stopper and rush-checker. A long, wicked-looking bayonet with a basket hilt, the back of the blade serrated for three-quarters of its length, like the edge of a large saw, swung from the left hip; and the armoury was completed by a long-hilted, long-bladed knife, or short sword, stuck through the belt which supported the bayonet. They would certainly be a "tough crowd to meet at close quarters", as Drake murmured to his companion while the men swung past.
The soldiers appeared to be extremely partial to flags, for there seemed to be one to every twenty or thirty men. These were all identical in shape and colour, being triangular and yellow, with the device of a crimson dragon, open-jawed, in the centre.
As soon as the men had passed, Frobisher and Drake continued their walk, and shortly afterward reached the entrance to the dockyard, where they were sharply challenged in Chinese by a sentry. Fortunately, as has been before noted, Drake was an excellent Chinese scholar; and, in answer to his explanation that they were in search of Admiral Wong-lih, the man allowed them to pass, and very civilly directed them where to go, having seen the officer in question pass but a short time previously.
While Drake was obtaining this information Frobisher amused himself by looking around him; and as he did so, he caught sight of a very gorgeously dressed official approaching, attended by several servants, one of whom was holding a large umbrella over his master's head, while another timidly supported the heavy silken train of the mandarin's cloak. There was something familiar about this man's appearance, but the Englishman could not remember whether or not he had really met him before, or whether it was only a resemblance to some other that had attracted his notice. He was a man of very high standing--there could be no doubt about that; for, while he was yet some ten yards away, the sentry abruptly ceased his conversation with Drake, pushed the little skipper aside, and presented arms, his face assuming the fixed expression of a wooden image, touched, Frobisher imagined, with more than a trace of fear. And indeed, upon closer inspection, the official's countenance itself was seen to be anything but pleasant in expression.
He did not deign to return the sentry's salute, but stared in a particularly offensive manner at the two Englishmen, finally coming to a halt and putting several questions to the sentry, who replied in tones that positively quavered with apprehension. During this time the personage never took his eyes off the two friends, and Frobisher was on the point of losing his temper when the unknown, with a distinctly perceptible sneer, turned his back rudely and, with a curt command to his waiting attendants, stalked majestically away.
"Who the--?"
"What a--" began Drake and Frobisher simultaneously, then stopped. Frobisher, simmering with rage, continued:
"Drake, ask this sentry, here, who in thunder that insolent bounder is. By Jingo! I have half a mind to go after him and tweak his pigtail soundly. Why, he looked at us as though we were dirt beneath his feet-- as though we had no business to be alive. Confound his impudence!"
Drake, fully as indignant, sharply put the desired question, and in reply received a long explanation from the sentry, who constantly sent glances after the mandarin, as though fearful that the latter might overhear what he was saying, even at that distance. Presently he concluded, and Drake translated whilst the two continued their search for Wong-lih.
"The fellow says," explained Drake, "that the individual who treated us to such a close scrutiny is a very important official indeed. He is one of the members--the chief, in fact--of the Naval Council, also a four-button mandarin, entitled to wear the insignia of the golden peacock. And he is also the captain of the battleship Ting-yuen, the flagship of the Chinese northern fleet, which flies the flag of the celebrated Admiral Ting himself. Last, but by no means least, he holds an important post in the dockyard ; while, to cap everything, he is a member of the Chinese Royal Family, a Prince, no less, I assure you. What do you think of that for a tally, eh, Mr Frobisher?"
"Well, I am rather inclined to be sorry for the people who come under the scope of his Naval jurisdiction," returned Frobisher. "I should hate to serve in any ship of which he was captain. Of course I don't know the fellow from Adam, but there is something about him that aroused in me a very strong sense of repulsion; he looked to me like an arch-criminal. By the way, did the man tell you what his name was? I feel sure I've seen him somewhere before; I remember that repellent, snaky look in his eyes, which gives one the shivers up and down one's spine."
"Oh ay," replied the skipper; "I'd forgotten that. He did mention his tally, as a matter of fact. Let's see--um--what was it again? Ah, I remember. He called him Prince See--at least, that's what it sounded like."
"By Jove! then I remember when I met him last, Drake," exclaimed Frobisher. "It was when I went with my friend the admiral to the Council meeting at the Navy Building, when I received my commission in the Chinese Navy. Wong-lih mentioned then, that his name was Prince Hsi; and I recollect how very unpleasantly he impressed me then. It appears also that he is a bit of a scoundrel; for in Wong-lih's absence in Korea the fellow had the audacity to send the Chih' Yuen, the ship I was to be appointed to, to Wei-hai-wei to have her 9.4's replaced by 12-inch guns, intending to sell the smaller weapons, substitute old, out-of-date twelves, and pocket the difference. But, luckily, Wong-lih met her on the way there, screwed the information out of her captain, and stopped Hsi's little game. He hates Wong-lih, therefore; and, as I am a friend of the admiral's, he has honoured me also with a share of his dislike."
"The low-down, ruffianly swab!" Drake burst out. "But there! that's just the sort of beast he looks. Well, Mr Frobisher, if, as you say, he dislikes you--and from the way he looked at you I should say that `hate' was the more correct word--I would advise you to keep your weather eye lifting. That sort of man hesitates at very little, and he seems to have the power, as well as the will, to do you a bad turn; so watch out!"
"I will, Drake," replied Frobisher; "you can rely on that. But here we are at last, I think; this is the place where the sentry said we should find Wong-lih, isn't it?"
"Ordnance Wharf, third shed along, first door on the far side of the sheer-legs before you come to the fifty-ton crane, he said," replied Drake; "so I reckon that this is the door. And, by Jiminy! there is the admiral himself, walking beside the other officer in gold lace--a flag-captain, I should say, by his aiguillettes."
"That's him, right enough," agreed Frobisher, and together the two men set off in pursuit, keeping a little in the rear until the two officers should have finished their conversation.
Presently the captain saluted and went off about his own business, and Wong-lih, turning, caught sight of Drake and Frobisher. As his eyes fell upon the latter, he stood stock-still, his jaw dropped, his eyebrows went up, and he looked as though he had seen a ghost.
"Why, Captain Frobisher," he exclaimed at last, coming forward and holding out his hand, "is it then really you? My dear boy, I am glad to see you again, safe and sound, too, by all appearances. I have been mourning you as dead these three months and more, ever since I got back from the south and learnt of the disaster to the Su-chen on the Hoang-ho. I never expected to see you alive again when I heard that you had fallen into the clutches of the pirates; and I was more grieved than I can tell you--as Captain Drake here can testify--not to be able to send a rescue party after you to try to save, or at least avenge, you. But it was absolutely impossible; I had neither ships nor men to spare. The imminence of our war with Japan, which has been threatening daily for months past, and which is now an all-but-acknowledged fact, would not allow of it. Much as I regretted you, my country naturally was my first consideration."
"Of course, sir," agreed Frobisher heartily; "I quite understand. I, too, am delighted to see you once more; indeed, I came down here to the yard on purpose to find you and report myself ready for duty. I hope, sir, that you can still employ me."
"Employ you?" ejaculated the admiral. "I should rather say we can! Why, I could use hundreds of men like you, if only they existed in China. But come along to my office; we can talk more comfortably there. And you too, Captain Drake, if you will so far honour my poor quarters."
"With pleasure, with pleasure, my lord--your maj---er--Sir, I mean," Drake almost shouted, in his confusion, quite "flabbergasted", as he himself would have called it, at the Chinaman's stately, old-world courtesy. And a few minutes later they found themselves in Wong-lih's comfortably-furnished office, in the ordnance department of the dockyard. Arrived there, and having seated themselves, the admiral ordered refreshments, and immediately plunged into the matter always nearest his heart, now more so than ever.
"Since you have reported, Captain Frobisher," he commenced, "I take it that you are ready for service at any moment."
"This instant, if you wish it, sir," answered Frobisher.
"Thank you, Captain!" said Wong-lih. "That is practically what it amounts to. Your ship, the Chih' Yuen, is here now; and I would like you to take command of her at the earliest possible moment. She is in readiness to go to sea, with stores, ammunition, and men aboard--would be at sea now, as a matter of fact, had we had an officer to whom we dared trust her. And you, sir," turning to Drake, "are you willing to accept service under my Emperor? If so, I can offer you a berth."
"Certainly I am, your Highness," replied Drake heartily. "Only, if I may be so bold as to say so, I should like to be on the same ship as my fr--as Captain Frobisher here."
"Say `friend', Drake," broke in Frobisher. "It was on the tip of your tongue, and it is the truth. If a man who saves another's life is not a friend, I do not know what else you would call him."
"Quite right, Captain Frobisher," said Wong-lih. "I like to hear you say that. And as for you, Mr Drake, I can satisfy your wish very easily, as it happens. The acting first lieutenant of Mr Frobisher's ship is not fitted for the post, but he was the best we had at the time. Now, if you choose, you shall replace him as first lieutenant of the Chih' Yuen, and I will have your commission made out immediately."
"Nothing would please me better, my lord," replied Drake, with the utmost enthusiasm; "and I assure you that you--"
"Very well, then," interrupted the admiral, who was plainly hard pressed for time; "that's agreed. You shall receive your commission to-night. And now, gentlemen both, although I am so busy that I scarcely know what to do first, I must spare the time to give you a short account of the state of affairs as it stands at present, since it is necessary that you should have the fullest information to enable you--you in particular, Captain Frobisher--to understand exactly how things are with China, and how extremely critical the situation is. When you have heard what I am about to tell you, you will be able to form your own ideas and plans, and so be in a position to work intelligently with your brother captains, and under the admiral who is going to command the northern fleet, to which you will be attached. I may mention that I am to be in command of the southern division, while Admiral Ting will be your chief.
"You remember, of course, Captain Frobisher, that when the rebellion in Korea became so serious that the Government could not deal with it, the Korean Minister asked our assistance, and we gave it, as you saw, at Asan. I also informed you then that Japan had thereupon thought fit to manifest a somewhat unfriendly attitude by sending an unnecessarily strong guard to her Minister at Seoul, coupled with an intimation that she would feel obliged to send a much larger force if the rebellion was not immediately crushed. That, in itself, as we fully realised, amounted very nearly to a threat of war against China, and showed us that Japan was only awaiting her opportunity. We therefore sent a very strongly worded protest against such action to Tokio; and the Japanese thereupon agreed to defer action until it could be seen what turn events in Korea were going to take.
"That was the situation when you were sent in the Su-chen up the Hoang-ho; and those of us who had eyes to see and ears to hear were fully awake to the fact that this concession on the part of Japan was merely a postponement of the evil day. Perhaps she found she was not as fully prepared for war as she had imagined. I know we were not. My colleagues and I, and those of us who had our country's interests at heart, took warning, therefore, and hurried forward our preparations for war as rapidly as we could.
"Then things remained fairly quiescent until a few days ago. We had practically quelled the Korean rebellion, and matters were resuming their normal status in Korea, the only thing that remained being to institute the reforms which were undoubtedly necessary in that country. The proposals for these were offered to, and accepted by, the Korean Government; and the proposed modifications of policy began to take shape at once. One would therefore have thought that our little campaign in Korea might be said to have terminated satisfactorily, and that Korea might be left to carry out the course of action to which she had pledged herself. In fact, we actually commenced the withdrawal of our troops.
"Then, suddenly, Japan sprang her mine. Our Minister at Seoul was informed by the Japanese representative that Japan did not consider Korea competent to carry out her promises, and that therefore Japan would unite with China to carry out the reforms between them. This, of course, was tantamount to Japan claiming the right to share China's suzerainty over Korea, a most audacious and--I may almost call it-- infamous proposition. It was one to which Japan, of course, knew we would never agree, and we told her so in very plain terms.
"The next thing we heard was that Japan had landed no fewer that five thousand men in Korea, and that they were marching on Seoul; and on the same day the Japanese Minister there forced the situation by tendering two ultimatums--one to Korea, and one to us. The Korean ultimatum required that, within twenty-four hours, Korea should disclaim Chinese suzerainty and pledge herself to allow Japan alone to carry out the reforms in question. The alternative was that, if Korea would not agree, she was to be treated as an enemy to Japan. The ultimatum addressed to us was to the effect that we should, also within the same time, surrender our suzerainty to Japan and relinquish all claims over Korea--the alternative in our case being war!
"Of course we could not possibly send a reply within the time stipulated; and even if we could, we should have refused the proposal with scorn. Our Minister at Seoul did all that man could do to gain time, and sent the news to us immediately. As soon as we heard of Japan's action we knew that the anticipated moment had come, and that war had become inevitable; we therefore hurried eight thousand men on board transports, and dispatched them at once to Asan. And now comes a circumstance it almost breaks my heart to tell.
"War had not yet been actually declared, you understand, and Japan was still officially awaiting our decision; yet the Japanese fleet, in its full strength, lay in wait for our transports and the convoying men-of-war, and attacked them, sinking the transport Kowshing, with over a thousand men on board, and one of our cruisers. The other transports and cruisers escaped and got safely to Asan, where the troops were landed, the ships sheltering under the guns of the fortress. The messenger who brought the news of this treacherous attack informed us that the five thousand Japanese troops which I mentioned just now, having reached Seoul, had been dispatched again immediately, under General Oshima, to Asan to attack the garrison there. They met a small force of our soldiers four days later, at Song-hwan, and, I am sorry to say, defeated them; and the only silver lining to our cloud lies in the surprise those Japanese will receive when they find themselves met at Asan by seven thousand of our men, instead of only the small garrison of the place; for it is not very likely that Oshima's force, being on the march, will have heard either of the naval battle, or of our successful landing of the majority of our men at Asan.
"The sea fight occurred a week ago, but we only received news of the land battle to-day; and although we have been taken unawares by Japan's treachery in striking before the declaration of war, we have managed to prepare ourselves pretty well, thanks to the warnings we had that this was coming. Mark me!--Japan shall find to her cost that she cannot insult and ride rough-shod over my country without being called to very strict account. War, Mr Frobisher, will be declared by China against Japan tomorrow, the 1st of August; and I rely upon you, as well as upon all the rest of my officers, to do your utmost to keep command of the sea. The country which secures that will have the other at her mercy; and we ought to be able to secure it, as our Navy is, if anything, a little more powerful than that of Japan, seeing that we have two battleships, as well as cruisers, whereas Japan has only cruisers. That is the situation, gentlemen; and you are now as fully posted as I am with regard to the state of affairs; so strike hard and often for China, when you get the opportunity."
"We will, sir," replied both men enthusiastically.
"But," continued Frobisher, "I trust that our ammunition will prove very different from that supplied me on the Su-chen. You probably heard that the expedition failed for no other reason than that more than half our shells were filled with charcoal instead of gunpowder?"
"Alas! alas! I did," replied Wong-lih; "and I wish I could promise you that such monstrous iniquities should never occur again. But I cannot. I am doing, and have always done, my best to prevent this shameful tampering with Government property; but what can one man do, amongst so many? You will remember that I told you the mandarins were filling their pockets at the expense of their country; and there is no telling how far their peculations may have extended. I have examined as much ammunition as I have had time for, and I am bound to say that it looks all right; but beyond that I cannot go, for it is impossible to know for certain without opening every cartridge, and at a crisis like this, that would be an impossibility. You must do as I do, and trust that your powder will prove what it pretends to be."
"Very well, sir," returned Frobisher, bowing. "It does not seem a very satisfactory state of affairs; but I shall do my best, I assure you."
"I am certain of it," returned Wong-lih. "And now, one last word. Sorry as I am to have to acknowledge it, there are traitors everywhere about us, so trust no one but yourself and your admiral. News must have been conveyed to Japan by one of my countrymen to have enabled her fleet to know when the transports sailed, and where to meet them. That man, whoever he is, has Japanese gold in his pocket, and the blood of a thousand of his countrymen on his head."
Drake and Frobisher exchanged glances involuntarily. The same suspicion had evidently crossed the mind of each simultaneously.
"Do you suspect anyone in particular, sir?" enquired Frobisher. "If so, perhaps you will kindly warn me in which direction to exercise the most care."
"I am sorry to say that I do suspect someone most strongly," was Wong-lih's reply, after a somewhat lengthy pause. "But, unfortunately, he is so highly placed that even I dare not mention his name. If the man so much as guessed that I suspected his treachery, I should be assassinated within twenty-four hours; so, for my country's sake, I must refrain from telling you something I would give a good deal to be able to do."
"Someone very highly placed?" repeated Frobisher, drawing his chair a little closer to Wong-lih's, and lowering his voice. "Should I be very wide of the mark in guessing him to be a prince of the blood royal?"
Wong-lih turned pale, and glanced uneasily round him. "You would be, on the contrary, very near the truth, if my suspicions are correct," he replied. "That man has played many a scurvy trick in his time; but his other delinquencies are light compared with treachery to his country; and I fear to breathe his name in connection with so horrible a crime. But tell me, how came you to suspect also? Have you any grounds?"
"None," replied Frobisher. "But I have met the man twice, and on each occasion he has impressed me most unfavourably. I suppose one should take no notice of intuitions; but he certainly looks a thorough scoundrel, to my mind. I shall watch him as carefully as I can."
"Do," said the admiral. "You say you have met him twice; I recollect the first time, but do not recall a second. When was it?"
"Not an hour ago, sir," returned Frobisher. "I met him, with his retinue, just leaving the dockyard. He honoured me so far as to treat me to a very impertinent scrutiny as he passed."
"Leaving the dockyard!" echoed Wong-lih. "I did not see him about here. He ought to be on board his ship, the Ting Yuen, by rights, for she is quite ready for sea; and I know Admiral Ting is only too eager to take his fleet out to look for the enemy. Indeed, as soon as you are aboard the Chih' Yuen and have hoisted your flag, he is likely to make the signal to proceed to sea. No; that man had no business here. I wonder what he was doing."
Acting upon Wong-lih's hint that the interview had better terminate, Frobisher and Drake took their leave of the kindly admiral, and went back into the city to transact some necessary business before going on board. This included securing uniforms, and suits of mufti, toilet articles, and, in fact, personal requisites of every kind, of which both men had been destitute for several months past. This business having been transacted, their new possessions were packed and sent to the ship, and Frobisher and Drake followed immediately afterward. Arrived on board, the former had his commission read by the interpreter , and at last, after many strange vicissitudes, found himself standing on his own quarterdeck, captain of the Chinese cruiser Chih' Yuen.

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