Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command Mutterings Of War

The single, and scarcely original, exclamation of "Oh!" was all that Captain Drake appeared to be capable of uttering for the moment. His eyes continued to bulge from their sockets, and he looked like a suddenly-awakened somnambulist. He was trying to realise the meaning of what Frobisher had just told him, and was finding it altogether too much for him.
At last Frobisher said, with a laugh: "Well, skipper, the money's here, sure enough; but so are we, and it remains to be seen whether or not we can get out."
"We'll get out all right, don't you trouble," returned Drake confidently; "but"--unable as yet to detach his mind from the subject of his suddenly-acquired fortune--"just now you mentioned the name of the gentleman who collected all this stuff--Jenkins Can, I think you said he was called. Who was he, and how did he come to pouch such a pile of loot? Was he one of those old buccaneers, like Morgan and Kidd, that we read about?"
"Well," replied Frobisher, "he was not exactly a buccaneer, for he was not a sailor, but a landsman; and he operated in a much larger way than either Morgan or Kidd. As a matter of fact he was a Tartar chief in his young days, many centuries ago, who gradually drilled and armed his own tribe, then other tribes, and still others, until he came, in course of time, to have an enormous army under him. The idea then occurred to him to make use of this vast army; and he determined upon no less a task than that of conquering Asia. He did it, too; there's hardly a square mile of this continent that has not echoed to the tread of his troops. Everywhere he went he was victorious. He took and sacked cities, destroyed them, and sowed the ruins with salt; and it is said that, to this day, no grass will grow where Genghiz Khan's armies trod. Naturally, in the course of time, he accumulated a vast booty from the cities he captured, and it finally became too large and cumbersome for him to carry about with him, so he determined to alter his tactics for once, and, instead of destroying, to build a city for himself where he could bury his hoard, and which he could make his head-quarters.
"It is well known that he actually did this--various records state it, but those records do not say exactly where. The city, it is said, was founded somewhere in northern China--on the banks of a mighty river, is the wording, I believe; but there are several rivers in China answering that description, so the place might be almost anywhere. Then, years afterward, this man determined to conquer Japan. He fitted out a great armada and sailed for Nippon; but, as in the case of the famous Spanish Armada, a storm arose, and the entire fleet was wrecked. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese lost their lives, and Japan was saved. From that time onward, Genghiz Khan and the records relating to his treasure disappeared; and the city he founded, as well as the treasure, gradually passed into legend, the story being handed down from father to son by word of mouth. The man himself is supposed to have been cast ashore in Japan, where he adopted the dress and customs of the Japanese, in course of time becoming one of themselves, and winning great renown under another name--which I forget for the moment. But antiquarians insist that the name he assumed was but the Japanese rendering of his own former one of Genghiz Khan.
"At any rate, he never returned to China to recover his treasure; and legend has it that it still remained where it had been originally hidden. From time to time, expeditions have been formed for the purpose of searching for this legendary deserted city; but it has remained for us, Drake, to discover it, and to secure Genghiz Khan's millions. This must be the town, this must be the treasure; for not otherwise can such an enormous hoard be accounted for. Nobody but the conqueror of Asia could ever have amassed so much."
"That's very interesting, Mr Frobisher," said Drake, who had been listening intently; "and it's a very comforting thought that all this belongs to us, if we can only get out. I suppose, in any case, we had better fill our pockets, lest we should not be able to get back here?"
"It would not be at all a bad idea, skipper," returned Frobisher; and the two men slipped a few handfuls of the jewels into their pockets, as coolly as though they had been so many pebbles instead of gems worth several thousands of pounds.
"And now," said Frobisher, "we had better turn our attention to getting out of this. I shall not feel comfortable until I have satisfied myself that this place is not going to prove a living tomb for us."
They closed the lids of all the chests, and passed through what Frobisher called "the door-way of swords", carefully closing the door behind them by means of a stick, lest the closing should again set the swords in motion. But it did not; the mechanism was evidently so arranged as only to operate upon the opening of the door.
"I do not think we need fear burglars here," said Drake with a smile, as the door clanged shut.
The two men then decided to explore the remainder of the corridors, for unless an exit from one of them could be found there was little doubt that the treasure would prove as useless to them as it had been to Genghiz Khan himself.
The first passage they explored ended in a blank wall, as the three others had done; but in the next, to their great relief, they found another passage branching away to the left. This they followed for some distance, until they reached a spot where it branched into two. As there was no knowing which, if either, was the right one, they took the one on the left, as the previous opening had been on the left of the corridor, and followed it for a considerable distance. But they were doomed to disappointment; the corridor led nowhere. It simply came to what seemed to be a dead end, like the others. Frobisher felt the drops of sweat forming on his forehead, for it was beginning to look remarkably as though there was but one entrance to the vault--that through which they had come--and that all these other passages were either natural, or had been cut simply with the idea of mystifying and misleading possible intruders.
"Never say die" was, however, Frobisher's motto, and Drake's too, for that matter, so they tried back and entered the right-hand branch. But no better success attended them here, this ending in a blank wall also. There was now only one corridor untried, and with sinking hearts they proceeded to explore it.
No exit of any sort rewarded them here either, and hardly daring to look each other in the face, from fear of what they might see there, they returned to the main chamber, into which Drake had fallen headlong in the first instance. Here they could still hear the distant shouts and trampling of the pirates, who were evidently moving about in the chamber directly overhead, continuing the search for their prey; but even the thought that they were safe from those barbarous savages was now hardly sufficient to cheer them. It would have been almost better to have met death in the open, fighting, than to be compelled to watch his slow approach in this dismal place, far below the level of the ground.
Unable to remain still, Frobisher again most carefully examined the inside of the secret door in search of a hidden spring, but no sign of it could he discover. It seemed evident that, unless the door were actually propped open by the person entering the vault, there was no getting back by that way; and Frobisher could not help thinking that surely some other exit must have been provided. The people accustomed to using the vault could not be expected always to remember to prop the door open when they entered; and it did not seem reasonable to suppose that the place had been so constructed that a mere lapse of memory would be tantamount to a person signing his own death-warrant. An emergency exit must have been made for use in case the main door became closed accidentally or otherwise; but the question was, where was it situated?
Drake suggested that there must undoubtedly be an opening somewhere, because the air in the vault was comparatively pure and fresh; at least it had not the dead, stale, stuffy smell of air confined in a hermetically-sealed chamber. But Frobisher pointed out that the door by which they had entered, although an excellent fit, did not butt up against the jambs so closely as to exclude the air altogether; yet he acknowledged that the air in the vault certainly seemed sweeter than might have been expected, had the main door been the only channel through which it could filter in.
Under the stimulus of the new glimmer of hope thus caught, every corridor was once more explored, even more closely than before, but with no other result than that Frobisher completely satisfied himself that there was most certainly no exit from any of the passages. Even a concealed door, opened by a spring, could hardly have evaded the close scrutiny of the two men; and it became more and more apparent that they had been caught in a trap from which there was no escape. Both were feeling famished for want of food, and were parched with thirst; and Frobisher could not help wondering how long the agony of death from starvation and thirst would be prolonged before blessed unconsciousness came to their relief.
Suddenly--they had both been sitting dejectedly on the floor--Frobisher jumped to his feet.
"Look here, Drake," he exclaimed, "there is just one place that we never thought of searching, and that's the treasure chamber itself. We were too deeply interested in the valuables we found to think of looking for an exit in there. Who knows?--the very thing we are hunting for may be in there all the time."
The two men fairly raced down the passage leading to the chamber, opened the latch, with all due caution, and re-entered the vault. At first sight there appeared to be no semblance of a second door, and their hopes dropped to zero once more. Then Drake proposed that, as a last chance, they should remove the chests to the centre of the room and see whether, possibly, there might be a door concealed behind any of them. They set to work feverishly, and in doing so spilled the jewels and coins in heaps on the floor. But what did that matter? Unless they found a way of escape from their prison, jewels and coin would be of far less value to them than a loaf of bread and a jar of water.
Then, at the very end, when their hopes were practically extinguished, the last chests removed disclosed a little oaken door set into the wall, not more than four feet high by three feet broad. Drake was about to open it impulsively when Frobisher restrained him. He did not want either of them to be killed on the very threshold of success by some other hidden and fiendishly ingenious piece of mechanism. But when cautiously opened with the aid of one of the sticks, nothing happened in this instance, and they crawled safely through into another passage, being careful to close the door behind them.
This passage looked a good deal more promising, there being no less than four other corridors branching off it at right angles, each, curiously enough, leading away to the left. But they determined to go straight ahead in the first instance, exploring the corridors afterwards, if not successful in their present direction. They traversed so long a distance in a perfectly straight line, the ground rising gently all the way, that they soon became convinced that they were at last on the right track, as the passage must, some distance back, have passed from under the foundations of the palace itself, and be leading, undoubtedly, to some exit at a considerable distance from the building. It seemed probable that it might have been constructed with a view to providing a means of escape, should the palace ever be attacked and stormed.
That they were correct in their surmise was proved shortly afterward when, a little distance ahead, Frobisher caught sight of a pin-hole of light. This presently resolved itself into sunlight shining through the keyhole of another door; and they realised that, since it was now broad daylight, they must have spent several hours in Genghiz Khan's treasure-house. The door did not open with a handle, as the others had done, and there was no key hanging handily on the wall, as there had been when Frobisher escaped out of the pirate fortress; so that, after all, there was still a rather formidable obstacle to be overcome before they could actually stand in the blessed light of day again.
"We must not let this stop us, Drake," exclaimed Frobisher; "though I don't yet quite see what we are to do. If we had a big stone we could burst the lock off, or out; but there isn't so much as a pebble to be seen anywhere about."
"How far are we away from the palace, do you think?" asked Drake. "If we are out of earshot of the pirates, I can easily manage it."
"A good quarter of a mile, I should say," replied Frobisher. "You could fire a rifle in here and they would never hear it."
"I mean to do something like that," returned the other. He produced his revolver, the muzzle of which he thrust against the keyhole, and pulled the trigger, turning his face aside at the same time.
The explosion in that confined space sounded like the roar of a twelve-inch gun, and dust and splinters flew in clouds; but when the air cleared the lock was gone, and in its place a ragged hole appeared, through which a clenched fist could easily be thrust. One or two strong pulls, both together, while gripping the edges of the hole, sufficed to loosen the whole affair, and presently, with a rattle of falling pieces of broken iron and springs, the door grated open, and they once more beheld the blessed light of day.
On stepping outside, they found themselves in the midst of a thick clump of bushes and vegetation which completely concealed the door from outside, and which had evidently not been disturbed for centuries, so thick and matted was the growth. Through this they pushed and broke their way, coming out a few moments later into what was evidently the remains of a once-spacious and magnificent garden. There were still traceable the outlines of old walks and lawns; ruined fountains and marble basins for gold-fish were scattered about; and there were even the remains of marble seats and couches whereon the warriors of Genghiz Khan's retinue had been wont to take their ease during their all-too-brief respites from fighting. Sundials, beautifully modelled in bronze, and statues, in bronze, copper, marble, and in some cases even solid silver, were to be found in many of the corners. A few were still on their pedestals, but most of them lay broken on the ground, though all gave evidence of the high level to which Chinese art had advanced, even in those far-off days.
A quarter of a mile away was to be seen the palace the pair had recently vacated, and, peering cautiously from behind a screen of brushwood, they were able to make out the figures of some of the pirates, still apparently searching industriously; while the smoke of a fire, a little distance away, showed that they had by no means given up the pursuit, but were cooking a meal preparatory to instituting a fresh search of the palace precincts. They had not yet, apparently, thought of looking in the gardens.
"Think we dare risk it?" enquired Drake, voicing the idea uppermost in both their minds, and pointing toward the groups of unconscious pirates.
"Yes," replied Frobisher. "They seem to be pretty fully occupied with their own concerns just now, and are evidently under the impression that we are still hiding somewhere in the building, so I think we could not hope for a better opportunity. They must, without fail, eventually discover that we are nowhere in the building, so we had better get away before they take it into their heads to start searching in this direction. I expect both groups have joined forces by this time, to participate in that meal they are preparing, so we should be able to get clear of the town without being seen."
This point settled, the pair made their way cautiously out of the gardens, and soon gained the streets, which they traversed slowly, to save themselves as much as possible in case the pursuit should again be taken up. And in about half an hour, during which they had perceived no cause for alarm, they realised, by the gradual thinning of the houses, that they were approaching the outskirts of the city on its eastern side.
They were proceeding carefully, conversing, and noting the interesting relics of a bygone civilisation, when, without a word, Drake suddenly seized his companion's arm and hastily dragged him behind a convenient wall. Frobisher, too much astonished for words, could only look round, wonderingly, imagining that the pirates were after them again; and as he did so, he perceived the cause of the skipper's alarm.
The danger was not behind, but in front. The pirates had proved to be wider awake than either of the Englishmen had anticipated, and had posted a sentry at the eastern gate. Fortunately for them, the man happened to be looking in another direction at the moment when they turned the corner, or discovery would have been inevitable. As it was, the question arose--how was this fresh obstacle to be overcome? They might possibly avoid the man by making a long detour to some other gate, but this plan appealed to neither of them, for even should they succeed in escaping by some other outlet, the ground outside the walls was so bare that the man must inevitably see them. The alarm would be raised, when of course the pursuit would at once be resumed, and their capture become certain.
A few words between the two Englishmen sufficed to show that the same plan--the only practicable one--had occurred to both; and, avoiding the main street, they made their way through side lanes and back alleys until they emerged at a spot only a few yards distant from the unsuspecting sentinel. Then, watching through a convenient cranny until his back was turned, they ran swiftly forward and concealed themselves behind a low stone wall which the man was passing and repassing on his beat.
The next time he passed that wall the sentry experienced the unpleasant sensation of being jumped on from behind by two men, one small and the other very large and heavy; the latter kneeling on his chest and squeezing his windpipe, while the other securely lashed his wrists and ankles together with strips torn from his own robe, their operations being completed by thrusting a gag made of the same material into his mouth and securing it there firmly. The Englishmen then carried him between them into one of the adjacent ruined houses, took him to an upper room, and left him there for his companions to find, if fate should so decree.
As a matter of fact, fate evidently decreed against the unhappy man, for several months afterwards the remains of a gagged and bound Chinaman were found in that very house by a party of travelling nomads; but it was a case of the pirate's life or those of the Englishmen, and it did not take them long to decide which the world could best spare.
The sentry having been thus disposed of, Drake and Frobisher struck off across the desert, by the margin of the river, at a good round pace; for since the pirates had posted a guard, it was probable that they would visit him sooner or later, and the Englishmen wanted to be well out of sight before anything of that sort should occur.
A little later on they were fortunate enough to come to a village, most of the inhabitants of which were away, as it happened, probably hunting, or fishing, or otherwise engaged upon their usual occupations. Here they secured a hearty meal of rice, bread, cheese, and goats' milk; after which they found themselves marvellously refreshed, and thought the meal cheap at the price of one of Genghiz Khan's gold pieces, specially cleaned up for the purpose of payment.
It is unnecessary to relate in detail the incidents of the journey of the fugitives back to Tien-tsin, for nothing in the way of real adventure occurred after they had once left the ruined city behind. On the way Drake explained to Frobisher how he had come to attempt his friend's rescue; and, in a few words, this is how it came about.
Drake had returned in the Quernmore from England with his cargo, which he duly delivered. Then, as China was purchasing steamers for use as transports, and he was offered about twice his ship's actual value, he sold her, and so found himself at a loose end, without employment. He regarded this as a favourable opportunity to commence enquiries respecting Frobisher, whom he believed to be still a prisoner in Korea; and, happening to encounter Wong-lih--who had by that time returned from his visit to southern China--he heard the whole of Frobisher's history, from the moment when the admiral found and rescued him at Asan, to that of his expedition up the river after the pirates. He was also informed that the expedition had failed, and that his friend was either dead or a prisoner. Wong-lih, said Drake, was greatly cut up at losing so promising an officer, a man, too, of whom he had made a friend; but he could not be induced to send a rescue party. He was altogether too busily occupied with matters of moment to his country, and war was so imminent, that, as a matter of fact, the admiral found himself absolutely unable to spare a ship or a crew for such a purpose. Drake therefore determined to ascertain for himself if Frobisher were still alive, and, if so, to attempt his rescue. And as he happened to be a good Chinese linguist, and possessed in a high degree the art of disguising himself, the attempt proved, as has been seen, completely successful.
It was exactly two months after Frobisher's escape from the pirates' fortress when two very weary, very ragged Englishmen arrived in Tien-tsin; and so bronzed and disreputable did they appear that they could obtain accommodation nowhere until they had proved, by the exhibition of some of their gold, that they were not up-country robbers, but solvent citizens, of merely a temporarily unattractive exterior.
This condition was soon altered, with the assistance of a few baths, a shave, and new drill suits; and, having made their toilets, Frobisher proposed starting immediately to report himself to Wong-lih, or whatever admiral happened to be on the spot at the moment. Drake insisted on accompanying him; and accordingly the two men sauntered off toward the Navy Buildings, where they were told that Admiral Wong-lih might be found at the dockyard, busily superintending the fitting out for sea of several repaired and re-boilered cruisers.
Upon enquiring the reason for all the bustle and confusion that were everywhere apparent, and the quite unaccustomed businesslike air of the port, Frobisher was informed by the officer to whom he applied for information that Japan had, a few days previously, perpetrated an act which could hardly be interpreted otherwise than as meaning war; and that consequently all possible preparations were being hurriedly made to meet the contingency. Guns were being mounted, ships were being dry-docked, scraped, and painted, nucleus crews were being brought up to fighting strength, and, in short, everything that could be done was being done to place China in a position to send her Navy to sea to encounter the Japanese squadrons; for it was plainly to be seen, said the officer, that, since the first acts of hostility had taken place, a formal declaration of war was merely a matter of a few days, and there was a great deal to be done in the time. Frobisher thanked the man for his information, and then he and Drake hurried on their way toward the dockyard. Truly, the air was full of mutterings and rumours of war.

1 comment:

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