Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command Eastward Ho!

So soundly and dreamlessly did Frobisher sleep that he did not wake until the clear notes of the dressing bugle--a solemn farce which Dick insisted upon his servant performing when ashore--had almost finished ringing through the little cottage.
Punctually at 8 a.m. the old marine who acted as Dick's servant when he was ashore, and as general housekeeper and caretaker when he was afloat, sounded the bugle as a signal to his master that it was time to turn out; and the neighbours in the houses round about--who, by the way, referred to Penryn as "that very eccentric young man"--had come to look upon the instrument somewhat in the light of a town clock; so much so that several of them set their watches by it, and one old gentleman was in the habit of leaving his front door and sprinting for the eight-fifteen train to town punctually upon the first note.
Frobisher sat up in bed with a yawn, and was half-way to the bath-room before he was sufficiently wideawake to recollect that this morning was different from the three hundred and sixty-five odd preceding mornings. But as he remembered that at last he had secured the offer of regular and profitable employment--although not quite along the lines he had hoped for--he let out a whoop of rejoicing that made the cottage ring.
Having completed his toilet, Frobisher came downstairs whistling, to find Penryn standing in front of the fire, warming his coat tails and sniffing hungrily, while from the direction of the kitchen came certain savoury smells.
"'Morning, Murray!"
"'Morning, Dick!" was the response. "What's for breakfast this morning?"
"Don't know," answered his friend, "but it smells like eggs and bacon, and steak and mushrooms, and chops and kidneys on toast. I hope so, at any rate, for I'm hungry this morning, and feel quite ready for a snack."
"Snack!" laughed Frobisher. "Is what you have just mentioned your idea of a snack? It sounds to me more like the menu of an aldermanic banquet. By the way, I didn't know the parcel-postman had arrived yet; he's early, isn't he?"
"Oh," replied Dick, turning rather red, "I thought I'd put that away. No, the postman hasn't been. That's just something I went out for, early this morning, for--oh--for a friend of mine."
"Sorry, old man," said Murray, "I didn't mean to be inquisitive. By the way, is there a train to town somewhere about nine or half-past? I should like to catch it if there is."
"One at nine twenty-three," answered Dick. "You'll catch it easily. And now, here's Tom with the breakfast; bring yourself to an anchor, and let's begin. I'm as hungry as a hunter. How about yourself?"
"Rather better than usual this morning," laughed Frobisher. "A little hope is a splendid thing for giving one an appetite." And with this remark both the young men fell to with a will.
The meal finished, Frobisher hurried off to catch his train; travelled up to London; crossed the city; and took another train down to the docks. Arrived there, he enquired the whereabouts of the steamer Quernmore.
"Over there, sir," a policeman told him, pointing to a spot about two hundred yards distant; and thither the young man made his way, halting presently at the shore end of a gangway leading on to the steamer, to take a good look at the craft that was to be his floating home for so long a period.
Certainly, he told himself, if one might judge by appearances, Captain Drake had ample justification for being proud of his steamer; for she was as pretty a model of a craft as Frobisher, for all his long experience, had ever set eyes on. Indeed, one would almost have been excused for assuming that, but for her size, she might have been a private yacht at some period of her existence. Flush-decked, with a graceful curving run, a clipper bow with gilt figure-head, and a long, overhanging counter, the hull painted a particularly pleasing shade of dark green down to within a couple of feet of the water-line, and polished black below that, she made a picture completely satisfying to the eye of the most exacting critic. She was rigged as a topsail schooner, and her funnel was tall, oval-shaped, and cream-coloured. Indeed, anything less like the traditional tramp steamer, and more resembling a gentleman's yacht, it would have been difficult to find.
By the look of her, too, thought Frobisher, she should be able to show a pretty fair turn of speed, if she were put to it--sixteen knots at the least, the young lieutenant judged--and the idea occurred to him that possibly, some time in the future, the lives of her crew might depend upon those few extra knots of which she appeared capable.
However, it would not do to stand there admiring the ship. "Business before pleasure," the young man reminded himself; and, involuntarily straightening himself up as though about to board a man-of-war, Frobisher marched across the gangway, and asked the first seaman he met whether Captain Drake was aboard.
"He's in the chart-house at this moment, sir," answered the man; "I'll take you to him." And a minute later Frobisher found himself ducking his head in order to get in through the low chart-house door-way.
"Hillo! it's you already, is it?" exclaimed Drake, looking up from a chart over which he was poring. "I didn't expect to see you until this afternoon. Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I hope you've come to tell me that we are to be shipmates for this cruise," he added, eagerly. "If I can't persuade you to come in with me, I shall be obliged to sail shorthanded, for I've no time to do any more looking round now."
"Then you can make your mind easy," laughed Frobisher. "To tell you the simple truth, I believe I had practically made up my mind to sail with you before I said good-bye to you yesterday. Yes, I'm coming, skipper; and I hope, for both our sakes, that the voyage will turn out as successfully as you desire."
"Good man!" heartily ejaculated the skipper, thrusting out his hand. "That's the best news I've heard for a long while. Now, where's your dunnage? I'll show you your room, and you can settle down right away."
"My dunnage isn't down yet, skipper," replied Frobisher, smiling. "I came down just to tell you what I had decided, intending to go back and fetch my traps this afternoon."
Drake looked rather blank at hearing this. "That's a pity," he remarked, thoughtfully, half to himself. Then, addressing Frobisher: "Well, trot away back, and get them down here as quickly as you can, will ye? Certain events have happened since I saw you yesterday that make me anxious to leave at the very earliest moment possible, and I've already made arrangements to clear directly after I had seen you this afternoon."
"I'll be off at once, skipper," returned Frobisher, "and be back again not later than one o'clock." And the young man darted out of the chart-house, across the gangway, and out of the dock premises like a sprinter, leaving Drake staring open-mouthed after him.
"He certainly can take a hint quicker than any man I've ever met," said that worthy, as he resumed the study of his chart.
Two hours later Frobisher was back in Kingston, had packed his belongings, and was saying good-bye to his old friend, Dick Penryn.
Neither of the men felt very happy at parting, and both, after the manner of their kind, tried to conceal their real feelings by an exaggerated show of indifference. Thus it was that their farewells were brief, almost to curtness, and to the point; and it was only as Frobisher was actually on the door-step that Dick pushed into his friend's hands a parcel--the same parcel that had caught Frobisher's eye that morning. It was heavy, and the recipient could not guess, even remotely, as to its contents; but he thanked Dick heartily, tucked the package under his arm, and got into the cab which had been sent for.
One last firm hand-grip, two rather husky good-byes, now that the actual moment for parting had come, and the pair were separated--one bound for the far, mysterious East, the other to return in a few days to the ship he had come to look upon as his real home.
It was with a few minutes in hand that Frobisher leapt out of his cab at the dock gates, and collected his few belongings. He paid the cabby, and, with his customary swiftness of movement, turned and started to trot quickly through the gates towards the Quernmore; but as he did so, he collided violently with another man, causing him to sit down suddenly on the hard cobbles, while Frobisher himself dropped one of his portmanteaux.
The fat policeman on duty at the entrance chuckled loudly; Frobisher laughed and picked up his bag, as he murmured an apology; but the victim on the cobbles appeared to be saying unpleasant things venomously in some language quite unfamiliar to the young lieutenant--who knew a good many--and this caused him to pause an instant and look at the man.
He was a brown, or rather, yellow man; and for a moment Frobisher took him for a Chinaman. But a second glance convinced the latter that he did not belong to that nation, nor to the Japanese, although he was undoubtedly of Eastern extraction.
Murray had no time to waste in conjectures, however, and with a hearty English "Sorry, old man!" he proceeded to the Quernmore, where Drake himself conducted him to his state-room.
Frobisher would have left his unpacking until the evening, and gone on duty at once; but Drake informed him that there was no need. All the cargo was aboard; the crew--specially selected men--were all in the forecastle; and there was nothing to be done until three o'clock, when Drake would get his papers, and the tug would arrive to help him out of the dock. Frobisher therefore unpacked and stowed his things away; afterwards getting into his first-officer's uniform, which had been hastily adapted from his own old Navy outfit by the removal of the shoulder-straps and the "executive curl" from the gold stripes on the sleeves. He then proceeded to examine the parcel placed in his hands by Dick Penryn.
Removing the brown paper, he found a square, polished mahogany box, fastened by two hooks as well as by a lock and key; and, upon opening the lid, he gave a cry of pleasure and surprise.
Inside were a pair of most business-like large-calibre, blued revolvers, carrying the heavy .450 cartridge--serviceable weapons indeed, capable of dropping a man in his tracks at a distance of a hundred yards. In addition to the weapons themselves, there was a cavity beneath the tray in which they rested, fitted up to contain exactly one hundred rounds of ammunition, and it was this--deadly-looking, blunt-nosed bullets in brass cartridge-cases--that had made the parcel so heavy. With his eyes snapping with gratification, Frobisher locked away the case in a drawer, and went out on deck to find Drake.
As he emerged from the companion-way, he saw that the tug was already alongside; and he immediately ran up on to the bridge, so as to be ready to carry out any orders that Drake might have for him. But it appeared that the skipper intended to work his ship out of dock entirely with his own hands, so Frobisher had a few minutes in which to look round him and take in, for the last time for several months at any rate, the intimate sights around him.
The Quernmore was now slowly passing out between the pierheads, and Frobisher was keeping a sharp look-out to see that none of the crew attempted a "pierhead jump", when he happened to catch sight of his late acquaintance of the collision. The man was standing at the extreme end of the pier, leaning against a bollard, and observing the Quernmore and her crew with a scrutiny so close as to be a little suspicious; and Murray half-turned to point him out to Drake.
He need not have troubled to do so, however, for he at once perceived that the skipper was already aware of the man's presence. If looks went for anything, too, Drake was intensely annoyed; and the thought at once occurred to Frobisher that the presence of this yellow man might possibly have had something to do with Drake's sudden resolution to leave during the early afternoon. He said nothing, however, at the moment, but continued to stare at the Easterner as long as he could see him clearly, in order to impress the man's appearance and features indelibly on his memory. For a presentiment had just seized him that this man was in some strange way bound up with his own fate, and that they were destined to meet again under far different circumstances from those under which they had come together, shortly before, at the dock gates.
He had not much time or opportunity, however, to dwell at length upon such matters; for a quarter of an hour later the tug had cast off, the pilot had taken charge, and the Quernmore, under her own steam, was proceeding rapidly down the winding, traffic-laden river.
They were passing Gravesend when Drake suddenly turned to Frobisher and remarked:
"I say, Mr Frobisher, did you happen to notice a yellow-skinned chap standing on the pierhead as we left the dock?"
"Why, yes," replied Frobisher. "That was the second time I'd seen him. The first time I cannoned into him at the dock gates as I was coming aboard, and sent him spinning. You should have heard the remarks he made--though I didn't understand a word he said, but guessed what they meant by his expression. I believe, if it hadn't been for the bobby at the gate, the fellow would have tried to knife me, although my running him down was quite an accident. I saw his hand fly to his waist-belt, but I didn't stay to argue with him. I didn't like the looks of the fellow a little bit, and I have a sort of presentiment that we have not seen the last of him. He seemed to be taking quite a lot of interest in the Quernmore. Of what nationality do you suppose him to be?"
"That man," answered Drake, "has caused me a heap of anxiety. Ever since we started loading our cargo, he has been on the watch every day and all day. I'll wager he counted every chest and case that we took aboard; and I feel convinced in my own mind that he is a Korean spy. If so, we may be in for a lot of trouble when we arrive out there; for he can easily cable, or even get there before us by catching a fast mail-boat. I tell you candidly that I am not very comfortable about the business; and I shall be glad to get out of English waters, too, for I am not quite as clear as I should like to be concerning the law, in its bearing on cases of this sort. I fancy that the British Government has the power to stop or delay us, if our Korean friend chooses to represent in the proper quarters that I am carrying arms to rebels arrayed against their lawful sovereign."
"If the news should by any means leak out," said Frobisher, "I think there's no doubt that you will be delayed, if not stopped altogether; for England does not want a quarrel on her hands with anybody just now, however insignificant they may be. So we had better keep our weather eyes lifting, and be prepared for all eventualities."
By the time they cleared the mouth of the river and dropped the pilot, however, darkness had long since fallen; and Drake hoped that with the dawn of the morrow he would be far enough down the Channel to be clear of any danger of recall or overhauling.
To this end he shaped a course that would carry him well over toward the French coast, determining to run down on that side of the Channel and so avoid, if possible, any prowling English cruisers. And it was well for him that he did so; for on the following morning, happening to take a glance astern through the glass, Frobisher caught sight, about eight miles distant, of a small gunboat coming along in their wake at top-speed, and flying a signal of some sort which the ex-naval officer shrewdly suspected to be a summons to heave-to, though the craft was too far away for the signal to be plainly read.
He at once informed Drake, who promptly went down to the engine-room and gave the chief engineer a few private instructions, with the result that, presently, dense volumes of smoke began to pour out of the Quernmore's funnel, and her speed quickened up until Frobisher judged her to be doing quite sixteen knots. Then he and Drake took turns at watching the war-ship astern, when it soon became evident that, even if she was not increasing the distance, the Quernmore was at least holding her own.
That this was apparent to the commander of the gunboat was demonstrated shortly afterwards, when a puff of white smoke broke out from her bows, and the distant boom of a gun floated down to them.
"I feared as much," exclaimed Drake, uneasily; "but I believe we shall get clear unless that fellow's firing brings a cruiser out from Plymouth to stop us. But,"--brightening up a little--"I fancy we are too far over toward the French side for anything of that sort; so, if we can only keep ahead, I think we shall pull out safely."
The gunboat continued firing, and after a time began to send solid shot after the flying Quernmore, as a stronger hint to heave-to; but her guns were not powerful enough for the range, and the shot dropped harmlessly into the water far away astern. She was still in sight when darkness fell, but had lost ground badly during the day; and when the following morning dawned she was out of sight below the horizon.
This was the only attempt made to stop Drake in English waters; and he was shortly afterward safely in the Bay of Biscay.
There is no need to describe in detail the voyage to the East, since it was entirely uneventful. They stopped at Port Said to coal; coaled again at Colombo and Hongkong; and then headed straight for the Korean coast, neither Drake nor Frobisher having taken particular notice of the P&O liner that had left England the day after themselves, and steamed out of Colombo harbour just as the Quernmore was entering it. Neither did they observe the fashionably-dressed, yellow-skinned gentleman on board the liner who treated them to such a close scrutiny through a pair of field-glasses. They had, for the moment, forgotten all about their Korean friend of the docks; and, in any case, would hardly have expected to find him on the first-class promenade deck of a crack ocean liner.
It was just two months after leaving London when, late one afternoon, Drake pointed ahead, to the north, indicating what at first sight appeared to be a belt of cloud right down upon the horizon.
"Ah!" remarked Frobisher, following the direction of the skipper's outstretched finger; "we are nearly at our destination. That's Quelpart Island, I take it. We ought to anchor off Fusan, then, about this time to-morrow, eh, skipper?"
Drake turned and regarded his officer solemnly. Then he slowly lowered his right eyelid.
"We shall pass Fusan about that time, Mr Frobisher," he said; "but we do not stop there. Fusan is our port, according to the ship's papers, I happen to remember; but our actual destination is a small harbour about two hundred miles north of that. We should never be able to get our cargo unloaded at Fusan, much less into the rebels' hands. Sam-riek is our goal--quite a small unimportant place, right on the coast. There's good, sheltered anchorage there; and, if we have the luck we deserve, we shall be able to unload the stuff without fear of interruption."
"Ah!" remarked Frobisher, and relapsed into deep thought.
On the evening of the second day following, the Quernmore was close in under the land; and, just as the sun was setting behind the Korean hills, the anchor plashed down from the bows, and the voyage was at an end. The Quernmore had reached her destination, done her part; and now it was for Murray Frobisher to carry out the other half of Drake's contract, and place the cargo in the hands of the rebels, at a spot a week's journey or more up-country. Would he, or would he not, be able to do this; and, more important still, from his own personal point of view, would he be able to get back to the ship with a whole skin? Time alone would show.

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