Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command On The Rocks

Bright and early the next morning Frobisher met Wong-lih on the quarter-deck of the Hai-yen, and the admiral announced his plans with regard to both his own affairs and those of the Englishman. He mentioned that he would be detained for some days at Wei-hai-wei making arrangements for the repair of the ships--each of which had been more or less damaged by the rebel fire during the fight in Prince Jerome Bay-- and getting a new ten-inch gun mounted in the Mai-yen's forward turret, to replace the one which had been dismounted on the same occasion. This, he estimated, would occupy about a week; and, when this work had been put in hand, there were several minor duties in the dockyard which he reckoned would occupy him for another week, making about a fortnight before he would be able to get away to Tien-tsin to make his report in person.
It would therefore be necessary for him to send a messenger with dispatches to the Council, giving an outline of what had taken place; and he gave Frobisher the choice of accompanying the flag-lieutenant who was to carry the dispatches to Tien-tsin--with a letter from himself to the Council recommending his appointment--or of remaining in Wei-hai-wei until he, the admiral, was ready to go to Tien-tsin and personally present his protege to the Council.
To this Frobisher made reply that, if it suited the admiral equally well, he would much prefer to accompany him to Tien-tsin; for he was extremely anxious to secure the appointment as captain of the cruiser, and knew--from what he had already learned of Chinese officialdom--that he would have a far better chance with Wong-lih by his side as sponsor, than he would as the mere bearer of a letter of recommendation from the admiral. It was accordingly so arranged; and he spent the intervening time in looking round the port, arsenal, and dockyard of Wei-hai-wei, picking up all the information he could with regard to Chinese Naval matters, and also managing incidentally to acquire a small--very small-- smattering of the Chinese language, which was afterwards of considerable use to him.
On a certain afternoon, Wong-lih drove up to the hotel where Frobisher was staying, and announced that his duties were now completed, and that he was ready to start for Tien-tsin. There was, luckily, a dispatch-boat in the harbour which had just arrived at Wei-hai-wei from Chemulpo, on her way to Tien-tsin; and the admiral had decided to take passages in her for Frobisher and himself. The Englishman therefore had only to pack the few belongings which he had purchased in the town; and five minutes later the curiously-assorted pair were being conveyed in a rickshaw, drawn by a Chinese coolie, down to the dock, where the San-chau, dispatch-boat, was lying.
The voyage from Wei-hai-wei to Tien-tsin is only a short one, of some three hundred miles, but the course lies across the Gulf of Chi-lih, notorious for its dangerous fogs at this season of the year and the typhoons which, at all times, are liable to spring up with only the briefest warning; and about two hours after they had left port, and were passing the bold headland beneath which stands the city of Chi-fu, it began to look as though they were in for one of the latter.
Wong-lih and the captain of the dispatch-boat held a short consultation as to the advisability of running into Chi-fu harbour for shelter; but as the roadstead was somewhat open, it was finally agreed to push on, at top speed, and endeavour to get clear of the Shan-tung peninsula and the Miao-tao islands before the storm broke. Otherwise, they might find themselves in rather an awkward situation.
Steam was therefore ordered for full speed--about seventeen knots--and the San-chau began to move more rapidly through the water, at the same time altering her course so as to pass outside the islands instead of through the Chang-shan-tao channel, as had at first been intended.
The sun set luridly in the midst of a blaze of wild and threatening cloud, and the light breeze which they had so far carried with them suddenly died away to nothing, leaving the surface of the sea like a sheet of oil, through which the San-chau drove her bows as through something solid. The air felt heavy and damp, and so devoid of life that Frobisher found it difficult to supply his lungs with sufficient air; and although the weather was intensely cold, the atmosphere still felt uncomfortably oppressive.
About two hours later, while the ship appeared to be steaming through a sheet of liquid fire, so brilliant was the phosphorescence of the water, there came, without the slightest warning, the most dazzling flash of lightning Frobisher had ever beheld, followed almost on the instant by a deafening peal of thunder, indicating that the centre of disturbance was almost immediately overhead. So dazzlingly bright was the flash that almost every man on deck instinctively covered his eyes with his hands, under the impression that he had been blinded; and several seconds elapsed before any of them were able to see again distinctly.
As though that first flash had been a signal, the air at once became full of vivid darting lightnings, so continuous that an almost uninterrupted view of the sea, from horizon to horizon, was possible, and the man on the look-out in the bows was therefore enabled to give timely warning of the approach of a white-capped wall of water of terrible aspect. So rapid was its rate of travel that the steamer's skipper had barely time to make a few hasty preparations to meet it, and to shout to the men on deck to "hold on for their lives", when, with an unearthly howl and roar, the storm was upon them. The wall of water crashed into and over the San-chau with a power that made it appear as though she had struck something solid; and for a few moments Frobisher, clinging to the bridge rail beside the captain and Wong-lih, could see nothing of the deck of the ship, so deeply was she buried in the wave. The wind, too, wrestled with and tore at ventilators, awning stanchions, and the boats slung from the davits, until he momentarily expected to see the latter torn from their lashings and blown overboard.
The canvas dodgers round the navigating bridge, which they had not had time to remove, were ripped from their seizings and blown away to leeward, where in the glare of the lightning they showed for a few moments like white birds swept away on the wings of the wind. The men themselves, thus exposed to the full fury of the blast, were obliged to cling to the bridge rails for their very lives, to avoid being torn from their hold and whirled overboard; and when the first lull came their muscles felt as though they had been stretched on the rack, so severe had been the strain.
Then, as though the wind had taken a breathing space to recover fresh energy, the hurricane burst upon them again, almost more furiously, if that were possible, than at first; and Frobisher knew instinctively that, so far from making headway, the San-chau was being driven back over the course she had just covered, at a rate of probably five knots an hour, in spite of the fact that her engines were going full speed ahead at their utmost capacity. Anxious glances were cast ahead and astern--ahead to ascertain whether there were any signs of the typhoon breaking, and astern in momentary dread of sighting the distant loom of the land toward which, as all knew, they were being slowly but inexorably driven.
Suddenly the skipper, who had been peering eagerly to windward under the broad of his hand, turned to Wong-lih and spoke a few rapid sentences in Chinese, at the same time pointing in the direction towards which he had been looking. The admiral's eyes followed the outstretched finger, and Frobisher also glanced in the same direction. The captain had apparently seen, or believed he had seen, something strange away to the westward.
A moment later Frobisher knew what it was. Far away, on the edge of the horizon, appeared a small spark of light which shot rapidly up into the sky, where it hung for a few seconds and then burst into a mushroom-shaped cluster of red stars that gradually floated downward again, fading from view as it did so.
"That," shouted Frobisher excitedly to Wong-lih, "is a rocket, sir. There's a ship away there which has been less fortunate than ourselves; she's evidently in distress; and, from her position, I should say that she has probably been driven on to the Miao-tao rocks."
"Without doubt," returned Wong-lih, "that is the fact of the matter; and there are probably many poor fellows perishing away there, almost before our eyes, while we are utterly unable to help them. If a vessel has really gone ashore on those rocks I fear that her crew is doomed; for no ship could long survive in this weather. Get my telescope," he added, in Chinese, to a quartermaster who happened to be on the bridge at the moment; and when the man reappeared with the glass, Wong-lih brought it to bear upon the spot where the rocket had appeared, which he was easily able to do with the assistance of the lightning, still blazing almost continuously.
"By Kin-fu-tzi!" exclaimed the admiral, a few seconds later, "that craft is very much nearer than I thought from the appearance of her rocket-- not more than seven miles away, at the utmost. She is a two-masted, one-funnelled steamer, and, I'm almost certain, is a man-o'-war. Now, what should she be doing just there? Have the Japanese sent a vessel over here for scouting purposes, or is she one of our ships? She looks very much like--and yet she cannot be, surely,--the ship I intend you to have, Mr Frobisher--the Chih' Yuen, the new cruiser which we have purchased from Great Britain, and which only arrived out here a few weeks ago. But I do not understand what she is doing there, if it is she; for, as I told you, we had no captain in our whole service to whom we cared to entrust her, which was one of my reasons for asking you to take service with us. I cannot understand it at all," and he began to gnaw his moustache perplexedly. "But perhaps," he continued, "I may be mistaken. I must be mistaken; it cannot possibly be the Chih' Yuen."
At this moment another rocket went soaring up into the night sky, followed by another and another; and then the distant boom of a signal-gun came to their ears, borne on the wings of the hurricane.
"May the spirits of their ancestors protect them!" exclaimed Wong-lih piously. "We, alas, can do nothing! She will be lying fathoms deep in the gulf by morning."
But, as though in answer to the admiral's prayer--so suddenly did the change take place--there came a lull in the furious wind, and the three men on the bridge were able to spare a hand to dash the spray from their eyes before the gale struck them again. This time, however, the wild outburst lasted only a few minutes, then ceased as suddenly as before; the thunder was less loud, and the lightning was far less vivid and terrifying. Then the black pall of sky above them began to break up into isolated patches, and a few minutes later the moon and stars showed intermittently between the rifts; the storm was dying away almost as quickly as it had sprung up. But, unfortunately, as soon as the wind dropped the sea began to rise, until within a very short time there was quite a heavy swell running.
The captain of the dispatch-boat lost not an instant in heading his ship direct for the spot from which the rockets had been seen to rise. The vessel's search-light was brought into action, and the skipper told off a man to sweep the sea ahead with its powerful beam, so that the exact position of the wreck might be located at the earliest possible moment; for during the last few minutes no rockets had been sent up, which was a very sinister sign.
With the cessation of the wind the heavy sea did not very greatly interfere with the San-Chan's speed, and she raced through the water on her errand of mercy at the rate of fully eighteen knots, the bearings of her engines smoking as the oil from the cups dripped upon their heated surfaces; and it was not more than half an hour before the man at the search-light found his object and kept the beam playing on her. She was then only a few miles ahead, and stood out, a great mass of silver in the rays of the search-light, against the black background of the night, with the sea breaking over her. Through the telescope her people could be seen running about her decks, and steam was still blowing off through her waste-pipes, so, apparently, the water had not yet reached her engine-room. Frobisher noticed that no effort was being made to get the boats out; but this might be because of the heavy sea running.
At all events, the craft was still above water; and there was little doubt that her crew could be saved, even though they might not be able to save the ship.
In another quarter of an hour--speed having been meanwhile reduced so as to lessen the danger of their running aground--the San-chau arrived abreast of the other craft, which proved indeed to be a cruiser, and laid off at a distance of about half a cable's length, her screw revolving slowly, so as to keep her from drifting down upon the wreck. Then, seizing a megaphone, Wong-lih hailed, and asked the stranger's name.
A man in a drenched Naval uniform similar to that which Frobisher was wearing leant over the rail of her navigating bridge and gave a lengthy reply, which the Englishman, of course, could not understand; but from the expression on the admiral's face he could see that the news was not at all of a satisfactory character. When the other officer had finished speaking, Wong-lih ground out a few tense words that sounded suspiciously like a Chinese execration, and, turning to Frobisher, exclaimed in tones of the deepest annoyance:--
"This is most unfortunate indeed, Mr Frobisher. As I almost suspected the moment I discovered that yonder craft was a cruiser, she is the Chih' Yuen, the ship to which I intended you to be appointed. And now look where your future command lies! So surely as either Admiral Ting or I are out of the way, something of this sort inevitably happens. It's those mandarins again, of course, who are at the bottom of the whole trouble. That fool aboard there who calls himself the captain tells me that, shortly after I sailed, Prince Hsi, who considers himself an authority on Naval matters, decided that the guns in the fore barbette of the Chi' Yuen were of too small a calibre, and in my absence he managed to prevail upon the Council to send her to Wei-hai-wei to be docked and have her 9.4's replaced by 12-inch guns. Twelve-inch guns in a ship of her size! The man is mad! But I know his game. His intention was to have sold the 9.4's, replacing them with a couple of old, out-of-date 12's which I happen to know are lying in the yard, and pocketing the difference.
"That is the sort of thing that goes on in my unhappy country all the time, Mr Frobisher--theft, bribery, corruption, all manner of petty chicanery, especially in matters connected with the Army and Navy; and then they expect us unfortunate officers to do our work with any old material that the high officials have not thought it worth while to pilfer! It is heart-breaking. There, in order to replenish the pockets of Prince Hsi, lies one of the finest cruisers in our Navy, wrecked, and likely to be lost entirely if it comes on to blow again. But," he went on, still more excitedly, "she shall not be lost. I will get her off, and she shall go to Wei-hai-wei to be repaired in dock--but not to have her guns exchanged. Those in her shall remain there; and his Highness can look elsewhere for something to fill his coffers."
Again seizing the megaphone, Wong-lih entered into a long conversation with the temporary skipper of the Chih' Yuen, during which he ascertained that the vessel had fortunately struck only very lightly; and, as she had been considerably sheltered from the seas by the part of the reef through which she had somehow managed to blunder before striking, she had not bumped to any extent, and was making but little water. It was therefore to be hoped that her bottom was not so badly injured as Wong-lih had at first anticipated, and that, at the rising of the tide, it might be possible, with the assistance of the San-chau, to get her safely off again. The admiral intimated to her captain that he would stand by all night, and would commence salvage operations as soon after daylight as the state of the tide would permit. Meanwhile steam was to be kept in the boilers, and the pumps were to be kept going continuously, so as to free the ship from water by the time that morning dawned.
High tide, Admiral Prince Wong-lih ascertained from his almanack, was at about seven-thirty on the following morning; so before daybreak all hands were mustered and preparations put in hand for running a hawser across to the Chih' Yuen. The sea had gone down during the night until, when the first streaks of daylight came stealing up out of the east, it was almost as calm as on the previous afternoon before the storm.
Frobisher was one of the first among the officers to turn out and go up on deck, and he occupied the time until breakfast very pleasantly in watching the cruiser's boats running out kedge-anchors. Everything being then in readiness, and both ships being under a full pressure of steam, the crews went to breakfast; and directly that was disposed of, the San-chau's boats were sent across to the cruiser with a light steel hawser, Wong-lih accompanying them in person, to see that "that fool of a captain" did not make any mistakes this time. The light hawser having been taken aboard the Chih' Yuen, the towing hawser, also of steel, was bent on to the end still on board the dispatch-vessel, and was hauled from her through the water on board the cruiser.
As soon as this was done, the ends of the steel hawser on board both craft were backed by several thicknesses of best Manila hemp, in order to procure the necessary elasticity and guard against the wire-rope parting when the terrific strain should be put upon it. After this the hemp portion of the tow-rope was secured to bollards on the quarter-decks of both craft, the slack of the hawsers attached to the kedge-anchors was taken up, the skippers stood by their respective engine-room telegraphs, and, at a signal from Wong-lih, the San-chau went slowly ahead until the towing hawser was taut. Steam was then given to the after-winches aboard the cruiser, to which the kedge-hawsers were led, the screws of the Chih' Yuen were sent astern at full speed, while the San-chau went ahead with every ounce of steam her boilers could supply to the engines.
The great steel cable vibrated until it fairly hummed with the strain, the Chih' Yuen's winches bucked and kicked until Wong-lih, on the cruiser's bridge, momentarily expected them to break away altogether, and the white water foamed and roared under both vessels' quarters as the screws whirred round. For several minutes it seemed as though the attempt was doomed to failure, and that all the cables would part without the cruiser budging an inch; but quite suddenly, as Frobisher watched, keeping the cruiser's mast in line with a pinnacle of rock about a quarter of a mile behind her, he detected a slight movement. The vessel's mast appeared to vibrate, as though the cruiser herself were pulsing with life, and then it slowly, very slowly, moved backward, until mast and pinnacle were a little out of line.
"She moves! she moves!" he shouted, waving his cap in his excitement; and then, like a vessel gradually sliding off the stocks when being launched, the Chih' Yuen gathered way, and a few moments later she slid bodily off the rock with a plunge that caused the San-chau to roll as though in a heavy sea, overrunning her kedge-anchors before her momentum could be checked.
She was afloat again, however, and Frobisher breathed a sigh of thanksgiving. He had set his heart on commanding her, and he would have been bitterly disappointed if so fine a ship had been lost to him and the Navy through the despicable cupidity of a mandarin and the incompetence of a Chinese so-called sailor.
Wong-lih remained aboard the cruiser for another hour or more, until he had satisfied himself that the leaks resulting from her strained and buckled plates were not so serious but that they could easily be kept under by the pumps; and then, having signalled for the first lieutenant of the San-chau to come aboard and take charge of the cruiser, in place of the incompetent captain, he ordered the latter to accompany him back to the dispatch-boat under arrest, as a preliminary to his appearance before a court martial at Tien-tsin on the charge of stranding his ship.
Wong-lih and the captain having boarded the San-chau, steam was rung for, and presently the two ships proceeded on their respective voyages, dipping their flags to each other as they parted company.
"It was most fortunate that we saw those rockets last night," observed Wong-lih, when he and Frobisher were again standing together on the San-chau's bridge. "Had we not happened to be on the spot at the moment, the Navy would have lost the Chih' Yuen, without a doubt. As it is, I fear she is rather badly damaged, and it will probably mean a few months in dock for her before she is fit for service again--which is all the more deplorable, because we may need her at any moment. At a crisis like this every vessel counts, especially in such a small navy as we possess. I am afraid you will not be joining your ship just yet, Mr Frobisher; but I have not the least doubt that, when we reach Tien-tsin, some congenial service will be found for you which will keep you occupied until the Chih' Yuen is repaired. There is plenty of work, and very few officers to do it; so you need have no apprehension whatever on the score of non-employment."
"I thank your Highness," answered Frobisher. "I am rejoiced to hear you say that, for I confess I felt very sore when I saw my ship, or what was intended to be my ship, cast away on the Miao-tao reef."
Twenty-four hours later the San-chau steamed past the Taku forts, flying the admiral's flag to announce that Wong-lih was on board, and received and answered a salute from the batteries; and shortly afterward the anchor was dropped in the middle of the river, opposite the handsome city of Tien-tsin, upon which Frobisher now looked for the first time.

No comments: