"By Jove!" exclaimed the prisoner to himself, as his eyes gradually took in his dreadful surroundings, "I'm sadly afraid that all this means the end of Murray Frobisher, and a mighty unpleasant end it promises to be. No escape possible either," he went on, carefully making a tour of the apartment, and at intervals tapping on the walls with an iron tool which he had picked up, in an endeavour to obtain some idea of their thickness, and so to judge as to the possibility of digging himself out, if he were left alone long enough. But the results were disheartening, to say the least of it. Every spot where he tapped gave back a dull, solid sound, indicating that the walls were quite unusually thick, and that escape by means of excavation or anything of that kind was absolutely out of the question. The room was somewhat peculiarly shaped, being evidently situated in one of the angles of the fort. The wall containing the thick, oaken, iron-studded door through which he had been thrust was evidently enormously thick, while the chamber itself was some fifteen feet wide by about thirty-five feet long, the end wall opposite the door being curved somewhat in the form of an ellipse, meeting in a blunt angle exactly opposite the door. And high up in this angle, about eight feet above the floor, was a small, iron-barred window, which might, but for the bars, have been large enough to permit of the egress of a man of ordinary size.
The total height of the chamber was about ten feet, and the walls were almost entirely covered with weird and terrible-looking instruments. Some of these Frobisher recognised through having read about them in books, but of others he could not possibly guess the use. Their shapes and forms were, however, so dreadfully suggestive that he felt it to be a mercy that he was ignorant of the more subtle and refined forms of Oriental torture, otherwise he would soon lose his reason in contemplation of the frightful uses to which those instruments could be put.
Also, strewn about the floor, in such profusion as to leave little room for anything else, were larger implements, whose use Frobisher was fortunately unable to guess at; while in the two corners of the room there were piles of variously-shaped knives and swords which he guessed the torturers were wont to employ in the discharge of their ghastly business, among which he recognised the long, razor-edged weapon used for administering the terrible "death of the thousand cuts", also a sword with a saw, instead of smooth edge, and a big, broad-bladed, keen knife or short, heavy sword, used upon those victims who were lucky enough to be sentenced to a quick death by beheading. To Frobisher it seemed that merely to immure a prisoner in such a ghastly museum was in itself an act of torture which might easily drive a less well-balanced man than himself mad within a very few hours.
One thing that rather astonished him was the fact of those swords being left lying loose in the cell. Surely, rather than submit to the tender mercies of a Korean torturer, any prisoner, however weak or timid, would arm himself with one of them and die fighting, or even put an end to his own existence, rather than have his life wrung from him inch by inch and minute by minute in agony indescribable! At any rate it did not take Frobisher a moment to determine that when the end should come he would take the long weapon used for the "thousand cuts" and, standing in the middle of the chamber where he could have a clear sweep for the sword, fight his enemies to the death.
He strode over to the corner and drew the weapon he had selected out of its scabbard. It had a long handle, permitting two hands to be employed, and the blade was made of very highly-tempered steel, as stiff and springless as an English razor, and as keen. It was about four feet in length and quite two inches wide, and the steel at the back was fully a quarter of an inch thick. There was a very slight curve in the blade, and the point was sharply curved round, similar to the points found on the old Japanese swords; and in the hands of a powerful man like himself it would undoubtedly prove a very terrible weapon. Indeed, it was so heavy that Frobisher wondered how it could be possible with so ponderous a blade to carry out the particular form of execution for which it was designed. But it would serve his purpose admirably, the sailor told himself; and he sheathed the weapon and placed it at the far end of the chamber, where it might be ready to his hand if necessity arose for him to use it.
The next step in the examination of the cell was to get a glimpse, if possible, out of the little window, high up in the wall, to learn something concerning the whereabouts of his prison and how it was situated. Then, in the somewhat improbable event of an opportunity offering for escape, he would not be handicapped by ignorance with regard to his surroundings.
To this end he hunted about for something wherewith to construct a platform, and presently managed to collect together a pile of instruments, pieces of ancient furniture, and odds and ends of lumber which, piled together, enabled him, assisted by his great height, to bring his eyes to the level of the bottom of the window; and having climbed up, using great care not to upset the pile in so doing, Frobisher seized the iron grating protecting the window and, thus supporting himself in position, looked out.
Narrow as was the window on the inside, the view which the young Englishman was able to obtain from it was quite extensive, for the embrasure which formed the opening was splayed widely outward on both sides, in a manner frequently seen in old English castles in the construction of the "arrow slits" in the walls; and the first thing he noticed was that he had been correct in his estimation of the thickness of the walls. They were at least six feet thick, and there was therefore no hope whatever of being able to break out through them.
The fort itself was situated on the right bank of the river; and, judging from the open country in its neighbourhood, must be at some little distance from the town of Asan itself. Indeed, as Frobisher afterwards ascertained, the building was situated on a small peninsula of land jutting out into Prince Jerome gulf, and was therefore nearly four miles distant from the town. The window embraced a view of part of the gulf, including the entrance, and a strip of jungle-clad country running right down to the water's edge; while beyond these two points the outlook was restricted by the outer edges of the splay in which the window was built. From the same cause, also, Frobisher was unable to see the ground close enough to the wall to judge whether the fort was surrounded by a moat or a dry ditch of any description, although from the general appearance of things he surmised that it was.
By estimating the angle at which his line of sight was cut off by the outer edge of the sill, he calculated that he must be confined in a room situated on the second story of the fort, and that there would consequently be a considerable drop from the bottom of the window to the ground, without taking into consideration the probable existence of a ditch of fifteen or twenty feet deep running round the base of the walls.
In any case, even if the iron bars could by some means be removed, it did not appear as though it would be possible for him to squeeze his big body through the opening, so the question of the depth of the drop outside was hardly worth worrying about. His one and only means of egress seemed to be the door by which he had entered, and to that he now turned his attention, with the view of ascertaining whether any hope lay in that direction.
As has been mentioned, the door was constructed of timber very much resembling oak, and its inner surface was reinforced by stout iron straps some three or four inches wide, at least half an inch thick, and extending across the whole width of the door. The round heads of bolts studded at intervals along the whole length of the straps indicated that similar iron bands existed on the other side of the door, and that the straps, inside and outside--of which there were no less than seven pairs--were connected together, thus clearly indicating the immense strength of the door. It was thus hopeless to think of cutting a way out through it; the only manner in which it could be passed was by opening it in the usual manner.
Frobisher therefore set to work to examine the lock, to discover whether there existed any possibility of picking it. It was an old-fashioned piece of mechanism, and, luckily, the iron case was on the inside of the door, the great keyhole being placed near the centre. Now for a piece of stout wire, the stouter the better! The young Englishman proceeded at once to hunt about among the various machines and instruments in the dim corners of the chamber in search of what he required. For some time he was unsuccessful, and he had reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that the search must end in failure, when his eyes happened to fall upon the very thing he needed.
Standing at the far end of the apartment, in that part of it enclosed by the circular portion of wall, was a sinister-looking machine, and to the gearing of one of its handles was attached a short piece of iron rod which he thought he might disengage without much difficulty. Forthwith he applied himself to the task, with such success that, half an hour later, he found himself in possession of what he required. True, it was somewhat stouter than it should have been for his purpose, but this was one of those occasions upon which he found his exceptional strength very useful, and after a few experiments he succeeded in bending it to the shape he wanted.
He was experimenting with the bent rod in the lock when, fortunately, his quick ear caught the sound of footsteps hurrying down the stone-flagged corridor toward his cell.
Snatching the wire out of the lock, he hastily dropped it into the nearest available place of concealment, and sauntered toward the opposite side of the chamber. There would be no time, he knew, to take down and redistribute the pile of articles he had used to enable him to look out of the window, so he was compelled to leave them as they were, trusting that, in the dim light, the visitor, whoever he might be, would not particularly notice the arrangement. A moment later there was a sound of keys rattling outside, the lock clicked loudly, and the door opened and closed behind a man carrying a lamp, which he set down on the floor just inside the room, after carefully locking the door again.
The thought instantly flashed through Frobisher's mind that perhaps after all there would be no need for him to go on with the manufacture of his skeleton key; for was not the actual key of the door in the room at that very moment? True, it was in the possession of another man; but unless he happened to possess fire-arms, it would be queer indeed if a desperate prisoner could not overpower him, tie him up somehow, and secure the key to obtain his liberty. Frobisher's eyes glistened at the thought, and his muscles braced themselves for a spring. But at the critical moment the idea occurred to him that the other was in his power anyhow, and that he could secure the key later on, just as well as now; and that, meanwhile, before he acted hastily, it might be well to hear whether the fellow had anything to say. Perhaps this was an official come to set him at liberty, or perhaps--Well, he would wait a little, at all events, and see what developments ensued.
Having locked the door and pocketed the key, the visitor picked up the lantern and advanced into the room, holding the light high and glancing keenly round until his eyes fell upon Frobisher, whereupon he gave a short grunt of satisfaction and hung the lantern on a convenient peg.
By the additional light thus afforded, the Englishman was able to examine his visitor more closely, and to estimate his chances of success if things came to a rough-and-tumble fight for possession of the key.
The stranger was tall, almost as tall as Frobisher himself, but not nearly so heavily built, and appeared to be about fifty-five to sixty years of age, so that the young Englishman did not anticipate any serious difficulty in mastering him. He was very richly dressed in garments of fine silk, elaborately decorated with embroidery, and wore round his neck a heavy gold chain, the centre of which was studded with a single enormous ruby. As a head-covering he wore a round Chinese cap, which was ornamented by a single magnificent peacock's feather, fastened to the cap by a brooch of solid gold set with another huge ruby.
The man's whole appearance was indeed imposing and magnificent in the extreme, and Frobisher instantly guessed that he was in the presence of a very important official indeed. This man, he told himself, could surely not be a Korean. No Korean ever attained to such a commanding stature, no Korean had ever been known to display so haughty a bearing, so dominant a personality; and as his eyes slowly travelled from the details of the man's costume to his face, the prisoner recognised that his visitor was indeed not a Korean, but a Chinaman, and a Chinaman of the highest grade, too--without doubt, a mandarin. There was no mistaking the thin, ascetic, high-bred face, the prominent cheek-bones, the almond-shaped eyes; and the long but scanty moustache scarcely concealed a strong, resolute-looking mouth, the lips of which were, however, rather too thin, lending an expression of cruelty and relentlessness of purpose which was anything but reassuring to the prisoner.
For a few moments the two men stood gazing at one another, each taking the other's measure. Then the Chinaman spoke, using excellent English.
"I am the Governor of this fortress of Asan," he began coldly, "and have just been informed of your presence here. You would have been brought before me on your arrival, but it chanced to be the hour of my afternoon rest. Who and what are you?"
"My name is Murray Frobisher," answered the Englishman, "and I was formerly a lieutenant in the British Navy."
"Ha!" exclaimed the Governor. "You say `formerly'. I take it, then, that you are no longer in your country's service, and that it is not known to your Government that you have turned gun-runner in order to supply arms to rebels against their lawful sovereign?"
"You are correct in both suppositions," answered Frobisher. "You tax me with gun-running; and I plead guilty to the charge. I certainly was bringing arms to the rebels, as you term them; but my conscience is quite clear upon that point. It is well known that the Korean Government has been treating its subjects in a most outrageous manner; and if some of them with more pluck than the rest have made up their minds to put an end to such tyranny, more power to them, say I, and may somebody else be more fortunate than myself in providing them with weapons wherewith to uphold their liberties and rid themselves of the rulers who are oppressing them."
The Chinaman looked at Frobisher for a moment, and then gave vent to a harsh, sneering laugh.
"Well spoken, my young friend!" he mocked. "You have told me something that I wanted to know; and now perhaps you will answer a few more questions. I would very strongly advise you to do so, since it may save you a good deal of--inconvenience, shall I say?"
"You may ask what you please," retorted Frobisher, "but I do not promise to answer."
"I shall ask the questions, nevertheless," said the Governor; "and if you will not speak now, other means of obtaining replies can doubtless be found. First of all, what ship brought those arms; who was her captain; what quantity of arms and ammunition did the consignment consist of--some have been lost in transit, I understand--and, finally, how many more shiploads are being sent out here from your country?"
Frobisher laughed, but made no reply.
"Did you hear me?" demanded the Governor, and there was deadly menace in his voice.
"Quite distinctly," answered Frobisher coolly. "But surely you cannot have already forgotten that I gave you to understand clearly, scarcely a minute ago, that I will tell you nothing whatever. And when I say a thing, I mean it."
"Soh!" remarked the Chinaman. "Well, you shall have to-night to think matters over; but if you have not altered that stubborn mind of yours by morning, you shall make the acquaintance of some of these little playthings"--indicating the various machines and instruments with a delicate, long-taloned finger. "There are some here which are probably new to you, but we, in this place, understand their use well. I will leave you this lantern, so that you may study them carefully during the night, and decide what you prefer to do."
With an ironical bow, the Governor then turned toward the door, his fingers seeking the pocket where he had placed the key.
This was the moment for which Frobisher had been waiting; and with a spring he hurled himself at the retreating figure of the Governor. But that individual was not to be caught so easily. He must have glimpsed the prisoner's face out of the corner of his eye as he turned, for he was round again in a moment, and, dodging the Englishman's furious leap, thrust a hand inside his jacket, and before Frobisher could get to grips with him, he found himself confronted with the muzzle of a heavy revolver, pointing straight at him, the Governor's forefinger already crooked round and pressing the trigger.
"Not this time, my friend," smiled the Governor sardonically. "One step farther, and I shoot to wound--painfully. Do you want an immediate taste of what is in store for you to-morrow, or--" And, leaving the sentence unfinished, the Chinaman slowly backed to the door, leaving Frobisher glowering helplessly in the middle of the room.
With his back against the door and the pistol still levelled, the Governor felt behind him, inserted the key, and turned the lock. Then, with one swift movement he was outside; the door slammed, the key grated, and the prisoner was alone once more.
"Well," he murmured, half-amused, despite his anger and disappointment, "the rascal was too smart for me that time. But,"--here he lifted the executioner's sword from its place in the corner--"things will be a little different to-morrow, if that man is foolish enough to trust himself here again alone."
Frobisher waited until the sound of his visitor's footsteps had died away along the corridor, and then, congratulating himself upon the fact that that worthy had left the light behind him, re-possessed himself of his piece of iron rod, and with the assistance of the lantern set to work upon the lock again, in the hope that he might be able to complete his skeleton key and let himself out before the Governor returned to carry out his threat. But this was a more difficult matter than he had anticipated; and after about two hours of ineffective tinkering he was compelled to acknowledge himself defeated.
With a bitter objurgation he flung the useless and twisted rod into a corner, and, not being able to find anything else that would serve his purpose, made up his mind that he would have to await developments, and rely upon his own strength of arm to get himself out whenever the Governor or somebody else should visit the cell. Meanwhile, if he were to be in good form for a possibly strenuous morrow, it was necessary that he should sleep, seeing that nobody had thought it worth while to provide him with any food; so, unsheathing the sword, with the help of which he proposed to effect his deliverance, he flung himself down at the far end of the chamber, laying the weapon beside him, and had scarcely touched the floor before he was fast asleep. He had been more worn out and weary than he had at all suspected.
It seemed as though he had just closed his eyes, when he was awakened by a thundering crash of sound, apparently close at hand. The chamber in which he was confined quivered perceptibly with the shock; while, right upon the heels of the concussion, came the noise of a distant explosion.
"A heavy gun, by Jingo!" ejaculated Frobisher, springing to his feet; "and whoever fired it is using this place as a target! That shot must have struck close outside here. What is in the wind now, I wonder? Anyway, if they are attacking this fort, they must, in a certain way, be friends of mine, for they are certainly the enemies of my enemies within the walls. Pound away, boys!" he exclaimed cheerfully, apostrophising the unseen gunners; "pound away! If you don't kill me first, you may perhaps make an exit for me through that wall."
At that moment he heard the sound of voices raised in alarm, the shouting of orders, and all the indications of a suddenly-awakened and thoroughly-alarmed garrison. Men were rushing about here and there, the rattle of arms sounded distantly through the iron-bound door; and presently, from the battlements, apparently directly over his head, there boomed forth the crash of the Korean garrison's answering gun, followed almost immediately afterwards by still another tremendous shock, accompanied by the rumble and rattle of falling masonry as another shot from the attacking force struck full upon the fortress wall, this time seemingly just above him. The foemen gunners seemed to have waited for the flash of the gun on the battlements, and aimed for that, and they appeared to be making pretty good practice.
The young Englishman looked at his watch--which had somehow escaped the fingers of his captors, and which he had kept wound regularly--and found to his astonishment that it was close on half-past four o'clock in the morning, and that therefore daylight could not be very far distant. It would not be long before he could climb up to his perch at the window, and see who the attackers were. Meanwhile the explosions had increased from the exchange of single shots to a general cannonade on both sides; and now the very atmosphere was vibrating with the deafening concussions, as the guns on the battlements roared and the heavy conical shot from the attacking party plunged against the thick masonry of the walls, toppling down great masses of stone, mortar, and debris at every hit.
The gunners were evidently directing their fire mostly on that portion of the building wherein Frobisher was confined, and he told himself that it would require but little more of their attention before the walls became so shattered that the shot would come plunging right into the cell. He began to speculate on what would then happen first--whether he would be blown to pieces or smashed into shapelessness, or whether an opening would be made by which he might be enabled to escape. If only a shot would strike directly upon the iron bars of the window, perhaps it would enlarge the aperture sufficiently to allow him to crawl through.
Looking up at the window, as the idea entered his mind, he saw that the sky was already flushed pink, and knew that there would therefore be light enough outside to enable him to see what was going on; and he at once climbed up on the pile which he had collected, and, hauling himself up to the opening, looked out.
At the edge of the jungle he observed half a dozen big field-pieces drawn up in line, and he could see the gunners busily loading and reloading from the piles of ammunition placed beside each gun; while behind, on the slightly-rising ground, and partly concealed by the jungle, it was possible to make out a large body of riflemen who, now that the light was increasing, were preparing to take their part in the attack. There was no doubt as to the identity of the attackers, for Frobisher could now distinguish several flags similar to those flown on the boats of the rebel squadron a few days previously, during the fight on the river. That particular force had evidently been joined by another contingent, and the two combined had decided to make another attempt to recapture the all-important cargo which now reposed within the walls of the fortress of Asan.
But suddenly, as the interested Englishman watched, he heard a loud, shrieking, whirring sound, somewhat resembling the very rapid exhaust from a locomotive, and a flash of flame leaped out close alongside one of the guns, followed by a loud explosion and a great cloud of smoke and dust. And when this cloud had cleared away, he saw that one of the besiegers' guns had been temporarily put clean out of action, for the right wheel was blown completely away, and the gun itself was lying on its side, half-buried in the sand; while, as for the crew who had been working it, so far as he could ascertain they had been blown completely out of existence, for there was no visible sign of them.
That high explosive shell had obviously not come from the fort; where, then, had it come from? And what new surprise had fate in store?