The Chinese naval officer--who, Frobisher decided, was undoubtedly a man of high rank and very considerable distinction--looked keenly about him for several minutes, evidently taking in and forming his own opinion as to the details of the scene which met his gaze. Then he stared long and appraisingly at the young Englishman, who thought he detected the ghost of a smile hovering about the new-comer's mouth as he again glanced at the forms of the two assistants. Turning to the Governor, the navy-man sharply addressed what seemed to be a series of questions to him. The Governor replied, making what Frobisher guessed to be a long and elaborate explanation. Finally, with a gesture expressive of anger and impatience, excited apparently by the unsatisfactory character of the Governor's explanation, the stranger cut him short and turned to Frobisher.
"Sir," he exclaimed, touching his cap as he stepped forward, and speaking almost as excellent English as the Governor's own, "permit me to introduce myself. I am Admiral Wong-lih, of the Imperial Chinese Navy; and I deeply regret that it should have become my duty to offer apologies, on behalf of my illustrious master, to an Englishman who has been unfortunate enough to undergo such treatment as you have suffered at the hands of a countryman of mine." Here he turned and glowered at the Governor, who bowed deeply, probably to hide the chagrin and annoyance that showed themselves only too plainly in his yellow face.
"My name," returned the Englishman, "is Murray Frobisher; and I was, some time ago, a lieutenant in the British Navy. I came out here for the purpose of delivering a cargo of arms and ammunition to the Korean rebels at a certain Korean town. Owing to the treachery of a native in my employ, I was betrayed into the hands of the Korean regular troops, and brought here a prisoner. The situation in which you found me was the result of his Excellency's desire to obtain further information respecting the rebels and their arrangements. Of such information, I may tell you, sir, I possess very little, and under any circumstances I should not have felt myself at liberty to divulge even that little. I should like to add that I by no means range myself on the side of the rebels, for, as a matter of fact, I know too little of the circumstances of the case to judge between them and the Government, although, from what I have already seen, my sympathies, such as they are, are on the side of the insurgents. I am in no way connected with the insurgent forces; and when captured I was merely acting the part of agent of another private individual in convoying that caravan across country. But of course, when an attempt was made to take that property out of my hands, I had no option but to try to defend it. That, sir, is the full truth of the matter; and I desire to place myself under your protection as an officer of the Chinese Navy, that I may not again be subjected to the kind of treatment which I have suffered since my arrival here."
"I thank you," returned the officer, "for your voluntary explanation with regard to your connection with the rebel forces; which explanation, I may mention, differs very considerably from the statement made to me by his Excellency here. At the time that that statement was made it struck me as being somewhat faulty, and therefore I determined to investigate matters for myself--a course which I am now very glad I adopted. I was informed by his Excellency, when I enquired whether any prisoners were confined here, that there was but one, yourself; and that you were merely undergoing temporary imprisonment as a result of your being captured in arms, so to speak, against the Korean Government; and it was not until I entered this chamber and saw--what I saw--that I dreamed of the occurrence of any such atrocity as has been practised on you. Again I offer you my most heartfelt apologies."
"Which I most cordially accept, in the spirit in which they are offered," said Frobisher, extending his hand, which Wong-lih grasped and pressed in a friendly fashion.
Then, turning to the Governor, the admiral icily remarked, still in English:
"I will detain you no longer, your Excellency. I desire to have a little private conversation with this gentleman; and when I require your attendance again I will send for you. Pray leave us."
"Your Highness's commands shall be obeyed," replied the Governor, bowing; and with a sullen scowl on his brow the man turned and left the room, giving the impression that he would gladly have slammed the door behind him, had he dared.
"Highness!" thought Frobisher to himself, during the short pause that ensued. "I seem to be suddenly getting among very important personages--with a big `P', too. This particular prince must be quite a celebrity in his own country, I should judge, by his behaviour. The Governor seemed to be a man of considerable importance, I thought; but even he has to curl up and eat humble pie when this man speaks to him."
"Now, Mr Frobisher," continued the admiral, "I trust that you will excuse my claiming your attention for a few minutes longer, for I should like to have a little conversation with you, and this appears to be the only room in the fortress where we can talk without being overheard. You informed me, just now, that you are an ex-naval officer. Would you object to informing me of the reason why you are no longer in the Service?"
"Not at all," replied Frobisher. And thereupon he proceeded to give the admiral a circumstantial account of the accident which led to his dismissal from the Navy. When Frobisher had finished his recital, Wong-lih pulled his long moustache thoughtfully for a few moments without speaking; then he said:
"Well, Mr Frobisher, I am bound to admit that I think you have been very harshly treated. I do not consider that the fault lay with you at all, but with the men who ought to have been on the look-out aboard the steamer which ran you down. There was never any question, I presume, as to your efficiency as a seaman?"
Frobisher flushed slightly. "None whatever, sir," he answered. "I have always been considered a quite capable officer, I believe; and, previous to the accident of which I have spoken, my skill as a seaman was never once called in question."
"I am glad to hear that," was the admiral's reply, "for I have a suggestion to make which I trust may meet with your approval. I suppose I may take it for granted that you are open to an offer of employment in your own vocation?"
"Well," returned Frobisher, hesitatingly. "I scarcely know how to answer that question. You see I signed on under--under--"
"You may safely continue, Mr Frobisher," smiled the admiral. "Everything you may say to me here shall be considered as absolutely private."
"Under Captain Drake, of the Quernmore, then," Frobisher continued; "and although I did my best to carry out his orders, I failed, and he will consequently be a very heavy loser. My failure cannot, I think, be considered my fault; and, as I only signed on for the voyage out here, I suppose I may now consider myself a free agent, especially as I have not yet drawn any pay for my services. But I feel that it is perhaps my duty to go back to Sam-riek, to see Captain Drake and explain matters; for he may be waiting there for me, expecting my return."
"Of course I do not know Captain Drake, or how he would be likely to act under the circumstances," rejoined Wong-lih; "but I feel sure that by this time he will have learnt of the capture of the consignment--news travels fast out here, you know; and knowing that you had fallen into the clutches of the Korean troops, he will, to put it bluntly, expect never to see you alive again. Nor would he ever have done so, but for the fortunate circumstance of the arrival of my squadron here on this particular day. This being so, it occurs to me that Captain Drake would not be at all likely to risk a long stay at Sam-riek in the very forlorn hope of your returning, but would get away from the place as quickly as possible. I should not be at all surprised if his vessel were to be found in Chemulpo harbour within the next few days. In any case, if you really wish to communicate with him you can write him a letter, and I will engage to get it delivered to him, if his ship is still in these waters. How would that suit you, Mr Frobisher?"
"The arrangement will suit me admirably, sir," replied Frobisher, "though I cannot quite see why I should not endeavour to rejoin Captain Drake. You mentioned, however, I remember, something as to my being open to accept other employment. Possibly that may have some bearing upon the matter."
"It has everything to do with it," said the admiral, "as I will endeavour to show you presently. But, first of all, I must ask you to listen to me for a few minutes while I try to give you an insight into the trend of recent events out here; for unless I do so, you will be unable to understand what I am `driving at', as I believe you English call it."
"Pray proceed, sir," was Frobisher's reply.
"Very well then. You are of course aware that rebellion has been rife in Korea for some months past, hence the endeavour of the insurgents to procure arms; while the Korean Government has been making every effort to put down the rebellion without the necessity of asking for outside assistance or intervention. The attempt, however, has not been a success, for the rebels are making headway all over the country; to such an extent, indeed, that the Korean Government has at last been obliged to apply to my Imperial master, the Emperor, for assistance. That application arrived some weeks ago; but it was only a few days ago that the necessary arrangements could be completed for armed intervention on our part. It was necessary to get together troops, transports, and so on, and to recall some of our men-of-war to act as convoy; and all this naturally took time.
"The preparations were finally completed, however, and four days ago I embarked the troops and left Wei-hai-wei for the port of Asan, where we now are, and which was reported to me as being a centre of disaffection, a hotbed of rebellion. But I most certainly never anticipated, when I left, that I should have the pleasure of rescuing a fellow sailor from a most serious predicament. However, to continue. By the convention of 1884 at Tien-tsin, between China and Japan, it was agreed that, should either country have occasion to send an armed force into Korea, the sender should inform the other country of the circumstance, giving full particulars of the reason, the strength of the force sent, and any other information deemed necessary. This was done by cable, before I left Wei-hai-wei, and the Japanese reply arrived by cable, also before I left. It was curt in tone to a degree, and intimated briefly that Japan intended to send a guard to Seoul for the protection of her ambassador-- as though we ourselves could not afford him the necessary protection-- and hinted very strongly that she might consider it advisable to send an armed force of her own--to see that we do not run away with the country, presumably.
"Little enough, you will say, to cause misgiving on our part; but the fact remains that relations between China and Japan have been very strained for some time past, and our Council feels that this action on our part will bring matters to a head, especially in view of the veiled threat that Japan may perhaps find it necessary to land an armed force herself. Matters look very ominous, Mr Frobisher, in the opinion of nearly all our leading men, so we are naturally eager so to order things that, if trouble should arise between the two countries--as I, for one, feel certain it will--we shall not be entirely unprepared. It is most unfortunate, however, that we are at present extremely short of naval officers; indeed, if war were to break out to-morrow it is an absolute certainty that several of our men-of-war would be unable to put to sea, for want of capable officers to man them. Crews sufficient we have, but officers--"
"Surely you are not serious, sir?" exclaimed Frobisher.
"But I am, indeed, sir," replied Wong-lih. "And now you will see whither this long story of mine is leading, and why I asked you if you would be ready to accept employment. Stated very briefly, the situation is this. If you will agree to my proposal, I can secure for you the position of captain on board a very fine new cruiser of ours, which, at present, we cannot send to sea for the reason I have just mentioned. I cannot actually make the appointment myself, but I can give you passage to Wei-hai-wei, whence you can easily reach Tien-tsin, where the Council is now sitting; and on my recommendation there would be no hesitation on its part about giving you the post--quite the reverse, indeed. There would be no unpleasant conditions imposed upon you; you would not be required to become a Chinese subject, or to do anything, in short, that would affect your allegiance to your own glorious Queen--whom may Buddha in his mercy preserve! All that would be required of you would be an oath to serve faithfully and to the best of your ability while in the Chinese service. Now, I have said my say; let me have your opinion and decision, for I have already spent more time in this fortress than I should have."
For some moments Frobisher remained in deep thought. Undoubtedly, this offer of Wong-lih's opened up a most rosy vista of the future. Captain of a fine new cruiser, with the prospect of a naval war in the near future--what more could any Navy man ask for? There would be chances in plenty to win honour, fame, renown; and his name might even go down in history if he had any luck! It was a tempting bait, indeed, that Wong-lih held out; and, being at a loose end, the Englishman would have been more--or less--than human if he had not jumped at it. Besides, why should not he? His own country had rejected his services; another country, apparently, had need of them: so why should he not sell his sword to that country? There was no reason at all, so far as he could see; and his mind was made up in less than a minute.
Turning to Wong-lih, he held out his hand with the simple words, "I accept"; and by so doing, altered the whole course of his existence, and opened up for himself a vista of such dazzling brilliance that, could he but have glanced into the future, even his steady, somewhat unemotional brain might have been very nearly turned. But before this could be realised he was to pass through scenes and experiences which were to leave their mark indelibly upon him.
The admiral returned Frobisher's grip with great heartiness.
"I am rejoiced to learn your decision, Mr Frobisher," he said, bowing courteously; "and I feel sure you will never have cause to regret it. For such a man as yourself, the Chinese Naval service, at the present moment, offers almost unlimited scope; and there is no reason at all why you should not, in the course of a few years, rise to the highest position in it. We urgently need good men just now, for I am sorry to say that bribery, corruption, and treachery are frightfully prevalent in both the Army and the Navy; and my heart sometimes misgives me when I think of the revelations that are bound to be made when we come to hand-grips with Japan--as I feel confident we soon shall.
"But I must not continue in this strain, or you will be refusing the job with thanks. I suppose there is nothing to keep you here? I mean, you will be able to accompany me back to my ship and make the voyage to Wei-hai-wei with me? I return almost immediately, for my duties consisted simply in convoying the transports here, and looking into matters at Asan sufficiently to enable me to make a report on my return; and that I have already done; so that I am prepared to weigh as soon as it is daybreak. I shall be honoured, also, if you will consider yourself my guest while on board the Hai-yen, my flagship."
Frobisher bowed his thanks. "The honour is mine," he said, "and I shall have great pleasure in accepting your kind invitation. Also, as I have absolutely nothing but what I stand up in, my preparations are not likely to occupy much time," and he laughed. "But," he continued, as Wong-lih turned toward the door, "there is one thing which I think we have both forgotten, and which may prove an insuperable objection to my joining the Chinese Navy."
"And that is?" enquired the admiral, raising his eyebrows.
"That I have practically no knowledge of the Chinese language," replied Frobisher. "To be of any real use as captain of a cruiser it seems to me that a thorough acquaintance with Chinese is an absolute necessity."
"If that is your only objection," exclaimed Wong-lih in a tone of relief, "you may dismiss it at once. I had not overlooked the fact that you might be ignorant of Chinese; but we shall do for you exactly what we are doing in the case of Captain Foster of the battleship Chen-yuen, who is also an Englishman. We shall provide you with an efficient interpreter, whose sole duty it will be to remain constantly at your side and translate your wishes and commands into Chinese; so, you see, there will be no difficulty at all on that score. Now, if you are quite ready, shall we go? I have no time to spare, and, moreover, the atmosphere of this place is anything but agreeable."
As he spoke, the admiral opened the heavy door and, courteously signing to the Englishman to precede him, allowed Frobisher to pass out into the stone-flagged corridor. Thence they followed the route by which the Englishman had been brought on the previous day, until they came to the room in which he had been cross-examined by the commandant of the fort; and there they found the latter, with the Governor and several other officials, all of whom respectfully rose to their feet upon the admiral's entrance.
With a somewhat curt gesture Wong-lih directed them to be seated; and then ensued a rather lengthy conversation in Chinese, the principal part of which was borne by the admiral, who seemed to be asking questions and issuing instructions. Then, rising to his feet, he dismissed the little group and requested Frobisher to follow him.
"Before we leave, sir," exclaimed the Englishman, suddenly remembering, "I should like to ask a favour. When I was captured by the Korean troops I had in my possession a pair of rather valuable revolvers, which I prize very much, apart from their intrinsic value, from the fact that they were given me by a very dear friend. I feel convinced that the officer who seized them has not allowed them to pass out of his hands; and, if he happens to be in the fort, I shall be very much obliged if you will request him to return them to me. Also, if the jacket that was taken from me has been preserved, I should like to have that as well. I may perhaps be permitted to mention, too, that I have not tasted food for fully twenty-four hours, and am feeling the need of a meal."
"My dear sir," exclaimed Wong-lih, in tones of genuine concern, "what can I have been thinking of not to have enquired if you were hungry! My only excuse is that I was so full of the matter we have just been discussing, that the first rules of hospitality escaped me for the moment. If you will remain here for a few minutes I will myself see that food is served to you. I will at the same time make enquiries about all your property; and if it is indeed here it shall most certainly be returned to you. I will be with you again very shortly."
With these words the kind-hearted admiral left the room, returning presently with Frobisher's pistols in one hand and the jacket in the other, bringing also the welcome information that a meal was being hastily prepared, and would be served with the utmost expedition.
Half an hour later Frobisher, feeling a new man and quite himself again, followed Wong-lih out of the fort and down to the beach, where the admiral's own boat was now waiting to take him on board. On the way thither it was necessary to pass over the scene of the day's battle, and although it was night and the only illumination came from the moon, and the lantern which the admiral's coxswain was carrying, there was light enough to reveal many of the horrors of the past day's fight, and Frobisher was more than glad when that blood-stained field was left behind and they came to the margin of the clean, wholesome sea.
Here they found the officer in command of the troops who were to remain in Korea and to assist the Government in stamping out the rebellion. They were, it afterward transpired, first of all to occupy the town of Asan, and operate against the insurgents, with Asan as their base, until further instructions were received or other developments arose; and the officer was then waiting to hold a short consultation with Wong-lih with reference to his future course of action, so that the admiral would be in a position to report fully to his Government upon his return to China. The transports, which had also been fitted up as store-ships, were to remain behind in Prince Jerome Bay, with one of the gunboats to protect them, while the two cruisers and the other gunboat were to proceed to sea immediately.
The general plan of campaign had evidently been already arranged, for a quarter of an hour later the officer and Wong-lih saluted each other in farewell, and the Army man returned to the fortress, where the troops were quartered for the remainder of the night, while the admiral entered his barge, and, with his latest recruit in the stern-sheets beside him, was pulled swiftly away to the Hai-yen.
Once on board, the admiral conducted Frobisher to a handsomely-furnished cabin, of which he was to have the exclusive use during the voyage, and also, with his characteristic kindness, presented him with a complete Chinese Naval captain's suit in perfectly new condition, which by a lucky chance proved to be a very passable fit. Of course Frobisher was not as yet entitled to wear it, but Wong-lih was so certain that the proposed appointment would be promptly confirmed that he had no qualms in donning it.
It was by this time not very far off daylight. Frobisher therefore decided that, tired though he felt, he would not turn in just yet, but would wait for sunrise in order to watch the squadron get under way. Wong-lih also had no intention of retiring during the short time that still remained before they were ready to leave, so he invited the young Englishman into his own spacious and luxuriously-fitted quarters in the stern of the ship, where the two remained smoking, talking, and drinking coffee, until the sound of the morning gun from the fort, followed by the report of one of the twenty-four pounders on deck, announced that it was "official sunrise", and that the hour had arrived for them to take their departure.
With the admiral's permission Frobisher followed him on deck and up on to the bridge, where a yeoman of signals was already waiting to hoist the necessary flags as a signal to the other ships to weigh and proceed to sea. Thick, greasy columns of smoke were rising from the funnels of all three craft, proving, to the Englishman's experienced eye, that the coal they were using was quite unsuited to Naval requirements; while a white feather of steam rising from their steam-pipes showed that there was already full pressure in their boilers. After a comprehensive look round, the admiral spoke a few words to the signalman, and a moment later a string of parti-coloured flags soared aloft to the cruiser's yard-arm.
Instantly the shrill clamour of boatswains' whistles was heard from each ship, and next followed the measured "clank-clank-clank" of iron cable, as the steam-capstans got to work and began to haul the vessels up to their anchors. For a few seconds the clatter subsided as the strain of "breaking out" the anchors came upon the cables, then it started again with a rush; and presently the dripping, mud-bedaubed anchors made their appearance under the bows, and were catted and promptly stowed.
Then, slowly at first, but with gradually increasing speed, the Hat-yen's screws revolved, the decks quivered, and the ship began to slide through the water, her bows turning toward the entrance of the bay as she did so. The other cruiser fell into line astern of the flagship, and, with the gunboat bringing up the rear, the squadron headed for the open sea in line-ahead formation, sped upon its way by the salutes of the fort and the remaining gunboat, to which the Hai-yen's guns replied.
Wei-hai-wei is only a matter of some two hundred miles from Asan; and at midnight the squadron found itself entering the Chinese harbour, where a number of twinkling lights betrayed the presence of other ships belonging to the Navy. The anchors were let go just opposite the fort, and both Frobisher and the admiral went below to enjoy a well-earned rest and refresh themselves in readiness for the duties that awaited them on the following day.