Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command On Special Service

For the first few days after the return of the fleet to Wei-hai-wei everybody was very fully employed, including even the admiral himself, who, despite his deep and painful wound, insisted on being about the dockyard, his head tied up in a bandage, superintending the refitting of the shattered ships. Nothing was mentioned with regard to Prince Hsi. That arch-villain had not even been seen; and Frobisher supposed it was Ting's intention to send him, as soon as he could spare an escort, to Tien-tsin to stand his trial--a procedure which the Englishman was inclined to think very likely to end in a farce, since, once among the circle of his rich and powerful relatives and acquaintance, the man was wily and cunning enough to be able to extricate himself even out of such a predicament as that in which he was now plunged.
Frobisher had, however, forgotten a certain promise which Ting had made at Wi-ju, at the mouth of the Yalu, when Prince Hsi had been so very nearly discovered in communication with one of the enemy's destroyers-- the promise that, if he actually caught the Prince red-handed, so that there could be no possible doubt about the matter, not all the influence or powerful relations in China should save him from the fate he would so richly deserve.
There could be little doubt that it was due to the signals sent that night by the Prince to the destroyer that the Japanese had learned the strength of the Chinese squadron and its destination, and had thus been enabled to come up in full force, as they had done, and practically annihilate the northern squadron. This was not the first nor the second time that Hsi had played the traitor, although until now there had been no actual proof of his treachery; he was strongly suspected, for instance, of having brought about the disaster to the transport Kowshing, when she had been sunk by the Japanese cruiser Naniwa, with over a thousand Chinese troops on board.
Admiral Ting had not allowed his oath to slip his memory, and the old fellow, gentle, kindly, and courteous though he was to his friends, could be very vindictive when it came to dealing with evil-doers, especially criminals of the hardened, remorseless type which Prince Hsi had proved himself to be. He was only biding his time, as events were very soon to prove.
One evening Frobisher received a polite message from the admiral that his presence would be required on board the flagship at ten o'clock on the following morning, and so did the other captains and first lieutenants. Consequently, at the hour named, Captains Foster, James, Frobisher, and Quen-lung, of the Chen Yuen, Shan-si, Chih' Yuen, and Hat-yen respectively, together with their first officers, found themselves assembled in Admiral Ting's cabin on board the flagship, each of them attired in full-dress uniform and wearing their side-arms. The admiral himself was also present, dressed in the fullest of full dress, and wearing all his various Chinese orders and decorations; while the cabin door was guarded on each side by a Chinese sailor with drawn cutlass.
The room had been cleared of most of its usual furnishings, and a plain, long and narrow oak table had been placed in the centre, with chairs sufficient to accommodate the little party of officers assembled. At a short distance from the table there was placed another chair, standing by itself, the use of which was to be discovered presently.
As soon as the last officer had arrived, Admiral Ting explained that they were met together to sit in judgment on the person of Prince Hsi, a member of the royal house of China, and lately captain of the battleship Ting Yuen, the said officer being accused of treachery to his country, mutiny, and desertion to the enemy during the time of battle. The accuser was, for official purposes, the first lieutenant of the Ting Yuen, an officer of high birth and proved integrity, who had also been struck down and confined below by Prince Hsi's mutinous sailors. Admiral Ting himself intended to act as Judge Advocate; and the other captains and officers made up the court, their opinions as to the guilt or innocence of the accused to be taken after the hearing of the case, beginning with the man of lowest rank present, the idea of this being to prevent the younger and less experienced officers from being influenced by the decisions of their superiors.
On the table, with its point directed toward the Judge Advocate's seat, lay Prince Hsi's sword, which had been taken from him at the time of his arrest.
The officers having taken their seats in the order of seniority, Admiral Ting declared the court open, and directed the prisoner to be brought in. A few seconds later the door opened and Prince Hsi entered, guarded by two sailors with drawn swords, and himself wearing his full-dress uniform, with all his orders displayed across his breast. He looked, Frobisher thought, a trifle pale, but was otherwise cool and collected, and his face wore its usual expression of cold and haughty resentment. With him entered another officer belonging to Admiral Ting's staff, whose duty it would be to act as the prisoner's "friend", a position something similar to that of counsel for the defence at a civilian trial.
Having bowed to the assembled court, the Prince, in view of his rank, was permitted to seat himself in the chair provided, and the trial commenced. From the first it was quite evident that Hsi believed his judges would never dare to proceed to extremities, for his replies were always careless, and often flippant; but Frobisher could see that the court was very much in earnest, and that the Prince was deceiving himself very badly.
It began to dawn on the prisoner, after a time, that his accusers were making out a very serious case against him--as, indeed, they could not help doing, in face of the evidence they possessed; and he made desperate efforts to justify his conduct and to excuse his actions, though, in face of the facts, he was attempting an utter impossibility.
At the expiration of an hour the accusation and defence had been heard, and the Prince was ordered to be removed. Admiral Ting then summed up, and asked the verdict of the court, commencing with the youngest lieutenant present, and working up until the last pronouncement rested with the captain of the Chen Yuen.
Every officer gave it as his conscientious conviction that the Prince was guilty, and Hsi was then recalled. He started violently as he saw that his sword had been reversed and that its point was now toward, instead of away from, him; for he knew by that token that he had been found guilty, and that all that now remained for him was to hear his sentence, which even yet, it was clear, he did not believe would be at all severe.
It was, however, the most severe that could be passed. The sentence ran that Prince Hsi, having been found guilty by a court composed of his fellow officers of the charges preferred against him, should be stripped of his decorations and have the insignia of his rank torn from his uniform in presence of the assembled officers and crews of the Chinese fleet, and that thereafter he should be shot upon the quarter-deck of the flagship Ting Yuen.
When this terrible sentence was pronounced Prince Hsi was observed to stagger and turn deathly pale. Such ignominy as this he had never dreamed of; and to lose his life into the bargain--
With a lightning-like movement, and before his guards could prevent him, Hsi placed the back of his hand to his mouth, held it there a second, and then, with a groan of deepest agony, reeled backward and fell upon the cabin floor.
When they picked him up he was quite dead, and the cause of his death was revealed by the large ring which he wore on the third finger of his left hand. It had been made hollow, with a tiny hinged cover, and concealed in the hollow there had evidently been a minute dose of an extremely powerful poison which, from the odour of almonds that filled the cabin directly afterward, Frobisher recognised as being prussic acid, one of the quickest and most deadly poisons known to science.
With a solemn, courteous gesture Ting dismissed his officers, and they trooped silently out of the cabin, leaving the admiral alone with the dead. A little later in the day the body was enclosed in a coffin and placed on board a ship bound for Tien-tsin, with directions that it should be delivered to the Prince's relations.
Thus perished a man who bad used his high position to attain his own base ends at the expense of his country and the lives of his countrymen. Nemesis had overtaken him at last, as it sometimes does evil-doers; and the high-born Prince Hsi died miserably, a condemned criminal.
Frobisher returned to his own ship from the court of justice saddened and disheartened. True, the Prince had richly deserved his fate, and China could never have known safety while he remained alive; but it seemed a dreadful thing that a young man like Prince Hsi, with all life's infinite possibilities to one of his standing before him, should deliberately imperil and finally forfeit those possibilities for the equivalent of a few thousand English pounds, in order to be able to practise vices which had originated in the first place simply through the possession of so much money that he felt he had to get rid of it somehow, and so adopted the quickest means available.
But the young English captain had very little time in which to moralise over Hsi's miserable end; for shortly after his return to the Chih' Yuen, while he was changing into his undress uniform, a messenger came aboard with a request that he would wait upon the admiral again immediately.
Wondering what was now in the wind, Frobisher went across to the Ting Yuen, to find the admiral anxiously pacing the deck awaiting him; and he soon learnt what it was that his superior required him for.
It appeared that a ship had come in but a short time previously, bringing important news, which her captain had just communicated to Ting, to the effect that the Japanese had resolved upon the seizure of the Chinese island of Taiwan, or Formosa, and that they intended to dispatch an expedition thither under General Oki, in two transports, each conveying twelve hundred men; and as the intended invasion of the island was believed by the Japanese to be a dead secret, it was proposed to send only one gunboat or small cruiser to convoy the transports. They evidently considered that, the Chinese northern fleet being still under repair at Wei-hai-wei, and the southern fleet away in southern Chinese waters, they had little or nothing to fear, and that a very small measure of protection, or even none at all, would suffice. How the man had obtained his information he declined to say; but he solemnly declared that the news was genuine, and spoke so convincingly that he quite satisfied the admiral of the need for taking immediate action.
Ting therefore asked Frobisher whether it was true that the repairs to his ship were all but completed; and on being informed that another day's work would suffice to render the Chih' Yuen ready for sea, if her services were urgently required, he ordered the young Englishman to expedite matters as much as possible, get his stores and ammunition on board, and sail at the earliest moment for Kilung, at the north end of the island of Formosa, at which spot it was reported that the Japanese intended to disembark their troops. This disembarkation, said Ting, must be prevented, if possible, and the gunboat and transports were to be destroyed, or captured, as circumstances should decide. This ought, he added, to be an easy task for the Chih' Yuen; and it would prove a very adequate reprisal for the sinking of the transport Kowshing and some of her attendant ships by the Japanese squadron some weeks previously.
This was just the kind of commission that appealed to Frobisher, who had still a great deal of the boy left in him; there was nothing that he liked better than to be able to get away on special service. He therefore assured Ting that he would return on board, hurry his preparations forward, and get away at the very earliest moment.
The morning but one following, therefore, found him steaming out of the harbour of Wei-hai-wei, with Drake, almost as eager as himself, standing on the bridge beside him. There had been very little prospect of active service for either of them until Wong-lih could join forces with the northern fleet, and that might possibly not be for some time; therefore both men were in the highest spirits at the thought of getting to hand-grips with the enemy again so quickly, and it was with a light heart indeed that the young captain ordered the admiral's salute to be fired as the Chih' Yuen swept seaward out of the harbour.
The distance from Wei-hai-wei to Kilung, at the north end of Formosa, is close upon a thousand miles, and Frobisher reckoned that it would take him some seventy hours to do the trip. On the other hand, the distance from the nearest Japanese port, Nagasaki, to the same spot was only about seven hundred miles; therefore if the proposed invading expedition sailed at the time when the Chih' Yuen left Wei-hai-wei, the probability was that the Japanese would be there first, in which case his task would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. Once let the soldiers get ashore, and he, with his small force, would be quite unable to turn them out. It was only by meeting the transports and gunboats at sea that he could hope for success; and he did not spare coal, or his engineers' and stokers' feelings, in his eagerness to reach the scene first. Of course, there was always the possibility that, believing their plan a secret, the enemy would not greatly hurry to get to Kilung; but Frobisher was not taking any chances, and he drove his ship through the short, choppy seas at the full power of her engines.
He had an additional incentive to haste in the aspect of the sea and sky; for there seemed to be another typhoon threatening, and he was keenly anxious to run out of the storm area before the hurricane should break. When twilight fell that evening, the sun was already enveloped in a peculiar, dun-coloured mist that resembled an enormous pall of distant smoke, in the midst of which the orb appeared like a dimly-seen, red-hot iron disk, as it sank toward the western horizon. The darkening sky overhead and away to the eastward glowed with a dull incandescence, like the reflected glare of an enormous furnace; while the short, choppy waves of the forenoon had given place to a long, oily, sluggish swell, without a single ripple to disturb its surface, through which the Chih' Yuen's stem clove its way like a knife shearing through butter. The ship was rolling heavily; and in the queer, eerie stillness that fell with the disappearance of the sun, the usual ship-board sounds, the clank of machinery far below, and even the voices of the men, assumed so weird and unnatural a character that Frobisher felt himself gradually being overcome by a most unpleasant, dismal sense of foreboding.
The sea, reflecting the ruddy glow from overhead, looked ghastly in the extreme, recalling to the Englishman's disturbed fancy the old sailor's legend of the appearance of the "Hand of Satan in the Sea of Darkness". This was precisely the kind of sea out of which such a terrible apparition might be expected to appear; and so strongly did the feeling of menace take hold of him, that he actually caught himself at times glancing apprehensively over his shoulder, in spite of his resolve to the contrary.
About an hour after sunset, puffs of hot wind came moaning about the ship from all directions, oppressive, and almost as noxious as the fumes from an open furnace door. Indeed, there was a distinctly sulphurous smell in the atmosphere; and the air was so full of electricity that a quite perceptible shock was to be felt if the bare hand were placed on metal, especially upon the copper fittings of the binnacle. A feeling of vague uneasiness seemed to have taken possession of every man on board; and tempers were short almost to the point of acerbity. The petty officers could be heard snarling at the men, the officers grumbled at their subordinates, and even Frobisher and Drake had something of a passage of arms up on the bridge, until they realised that their fretted nerves were due to the extraordinary weather conditions, and laughed the little unpleasantness off accordingly.
Frobisher now gave orders that all the guns were to be doubly secured, so that they might not break adrift in the event of the ship being overtaken by the typhoon, the approach of which now appeared most probable; and everything that might possibly strike adrift was fastened and double fastened, in view of what was almost certainly coming. The canvas dodgers round the bridge were taken down and put away, and the quarter-deck and forecastle awnings were removed, and the stanchions taken out of their sockets and placed below. The lashings of the boat covers were again looked to, and the boats themselves secured more firmly in their chocks, until finally there remained nothing more possible to be done for security, and the outbreak of the storm could be awaited with reasonable confidence.
About eight o'clock in the evening the swell became even more pronounced, and the ship commenced to roll so heavily that it was necessary to run hand-lines fore and aft the deck to enable the seamen to go about their duties, otherwise there was great danger of the men being hurled right across the decks and sustaining serious injuries. The gloomy, lowering, red light which had suffused the sky at the going down of the sun had given place to a dull, copper-coloured glow, mingled with a kind of brassy glare, all the more ominous from the fact that there was no visible source of its origin; for in the ordinary course of events it should have been quite dark, except for such light as was given by the moon, the sun having disappeared more than an hour and a half previously. So strong was this unearthly light that the horizon was plainly visible in all directions, save away to the northward, and there the blackness was intense. Not the faintest glimmer of a star was observable through the inky curtain which covered about ten degrees of the horizon in that direction, but now and again a sudden dazzle of wicked-looking forked lightning shot across the face of the bank. As yet, however, there was no sound of thunder, and the same unearthly stillness prevailed, save when a moaning sound could be plainly heard as the puffs of hot wind more and more frequently scurried through the ship's wire rigging, or sobbed weirdly in the hoods of the ventilators.
"There is certainly something pretty bad coming, sir," Drake presently volunteered, unable any longer to endure the strained silence. "I have sailed these seas before; and although I have never seen the sky looking quite so threatening as it does now, there were much the same premonitions before the great hurricane of 1889, when more than twenty thousand Chinamen were drowned, and hundreds of junks, sailing ships, and steamers were destroyed, and their wreckage strewn up and down the coast. I was in the old Barracouta at the time; and although she was as well-found a craft as ever I sailed in, I never expected her to live through it. It would be a queer state of affairs if we were to drop across the enemy now, sir, wouldn't it? The men would have a pretty job serving the guns, and no mistake!"
"An action, with a swell such as this running, would be an utter impossibility," was Frobisher's reply. "Before long we shall be having all our work cut out to take care of ourselves, without troubling to attempt the destruction of the other fellow. And by Jove, Drake! I believe it's coming now."
Drake glanced apprehensively behind him, and there, sure enough, just below the inky curtain of blackness on the northern horizon, which was now being rent in every direction by continuous lightning flashes, could be seen a long line of whitish colour, which, there could be no doubt, was approaching the ship with more than the speed of an express train.
Frobisher had scarcely uttered the words before the darkness was rent by the most terrifically vivid flash of lightning that he had ever seen, while simultaneously the air was shattered by a clap of thunder of such frightful volume that the cruiser jarred and shivered from stem to stern, as though she had taken the ground at full speed; indeed, for some seconds Frobisher was not at all sure that they had not happened upon some uncharted shoal. And while all hands were still cringing involuntarily from the shock, there came another dazzling flash of lightning, apparently within a few yards of the vessel, followed immediately by peal on peal of thunder, which rolled and reverberated over the sea as though all the great guns in existence were being fired at the same time within a few miles of them.
Then the rain came down as it only can in those latitudes--as though the bottom of an enormous tank had been suddenly knocked out; the roar of that colossal volume of water beating on the deck being such that, although Frobisher put his mouth to Drake's ear and shouted with all the power of his lungs, the latter could not distinguish a syllable.
For only a few brief seconds did this last; then it ceased as suddenly as though a tap had been turned off. An instant later the line of white water appeared, scarcely a hundred yards distant from the Chih' Yuen's stern. Frobisher had barely time to yell an order to the men on deck to "hold on for their lives" before the oncoming wave and the attendant hurricane broke upon the cruiser.
The wave, black, gleaming, and sinister in the sheen of the lancing lightning flashes, and capped with a ridge of phosphorescent foam, swept over the cruiser's stern, down upon the quarter-deck, and then forward, burying the ship in an instant from stern to stem, so that her captain, up on the navigating bridge, was unable for a few seconds to see anything of his vessel's decks, the bridge on which he and Drake were standing--or endeavouring to stand--and the tops of the ventilators being all of the upper-works that showed above the racing turmoil of foam-covered water. At the same time Frobisher and Drake were literally jammed against the quivering rails of the bridge and held there, powerless to move, by the amazing force of the wind.
A perceptible quiver thrilled through the hull of the sturdy vessel as, like a live thing, she endeavoured to free herself from that enormous weight of water, and a few moments later she emerged from the swirl, which poured off her decks in cataracts. Then, rolling herself free of the rest of her burden, she was carried irresistibly forward on the back of the wave, like a chip in the current of a mill-race.
Frobisher gave a big sigh of relief as he saw his ship shake herself free. "A little longer, Drake, and she would have foundered under our feet," he managed to gasp; "if she had not been the sturdy craft that she is, she would not have come up again."
"You're right, sir," replied Drake, wiping the spray out of his eyes; "that was a narrow squeak, if ever there was one. But hark to the wind! It must be blowing at ninety miles an hour, at least. I pray that nothing may get in our way, for we could not possibly avoid it. A hair's-breadth out of our course, and the ship would broach to and capsize with us."
Drake spoke truth. Although the sea was absolutely smooth--every wave-crest being shorn off by the terrific force of the wind almost before it had time to form--the extremely heavy swell that had arisen earlier in the evening was still running. Even the hurricane could not flatten that, and the Chih' Yuen, driven forward by her own steam and the power of the wind behind her, rushed down one steep slope and up the next with a speed that made even the most experienced seaman gasp. A very slight alteration of the helm, at the speed at which the ship was then travelling, would certainly suffice to send her reeling over upon her beam-ends, aided by the "send" of the sea.
Looking round him, after the storm's first wild outburst, Frobisher was horrified to observe the terrible damage and loss of life that had been caused by that first great rush of water. Of the men who had been on deck at the time, only some half a dozen poor, draggled, half-drowned creatures, clinging limply to the nearest support, could be seen; while every movable object had been swept overboard into the sea, as well as a number that are not usually considered easy of removal. Several ventilators had been shorn off level with the deck, and the water had poured in tons down the openings thus formed; the two quarterboats had disappeared altogether, and of another boat only the stem and stern posts remained, hanging to the davit tackles by their ring-bolts. Stanchions were either missing altogether, or bent into a variety of curious and extraordinary shapes; and even some of the lighter machine-guns mounted on deck had been torn from their tripods, and were by this time at the bottom of the sea. The havoc was simply indescribable, and Frobisher's heart was full of bitterness as he surveyed the shocking wreck of what had, a few minutes previously, been the smartest and finest cruiser in the whole Chinese Navy, and thought of the poor souls who were perhaps, even now, struggling feebly as they gradually sank to their watery graves.
All that night both Drake and Frobisher remained on the bridge, not daring to leave the ship to herself for an instant; and many and many a time during those hours of darkness did each of them think that his last moment was come. Yet time after time the cruiser recovered from the staggering blows inflicted by wind and sea, and rushed from crest to crest of the swell like a flying-fish pursued by dolphin.
Several times during the night and the following morning her skipper tried to gauge the speed at which his ship was travelling, and ultimately he estimated that she must be doing fully twenty knots over the ground. As the cruiser was travelling at this high speed Frobisher became particularly anxious to obtain a sight of the sun at midday, in order to ascertain his position; for he was of opinion that he must be very near, if not actually among, those islands forming the Chu-san Archipelago; and he feared, every moment, that the Chih' Yuen might crash headlong upon some submerged rock. But, unfortunately, the atmosphere was far too thick to render any observation possible; indeed, what with the black, low-hanging clouds, and the dense spindrift with which the air was filled, it was as dark at midday as it would have been, under ordinary circumstances, half an hour after sunset; and he was perforce obliged to content himself with the very unsatisfactory result obtained by dead reckoning.
Late in the afternoon the typhoon eased up a little, and Frobisher sent Drake below to secure some rest--for both men were completely worn out-- promising to call him and take his own turn after the first lieutenant had refreshed himself with three hours' slumber.
At the expiration of that time the wind had dropped so much that he felt quite justified in leaving the bridge; and he therefore had Drake called to take his place. With the easing of the wind, however, a very steep and heavy sea naturally began to rise, and Frobisher therefore instructed Drake to call him immediately should any danger arise to the ship. He then went below and turned in "all standing", excepting that he discarded his boots and his water-soaked oilskins; and he was asleep almost before his head had touched the pillow.
It seemed to him that he had been sleeping but a few minutes when he felt himself violently shaken by the shoulder, and awoke to find Drake, still haggard and worn for want of proper sleep, standing over him in his dripping oilskins.
"Hillo! Anything wrong, Drake?" was his immediate enquiry, followed by a request to be told the time, since his own watch appeared to have run down.
"Nothing absolutely wrong, sir," was the reply, "but what you can feel for yourself. The sea has risen very badly; and the ship is not behaving as well as I should like. The chief engineer, also, has just sent up word that the engines are working a bit loose, and that some of the bearings are almost red-hot. He thinks that some parts of the machinery must have been strained when that first wave swept over us; so I thought it just as well to let you know. As for the time, sir, it is nearly three o'clock in the morning."
"Three in the morning!" ejaculated the captain. "Surely not, Drake! I must have slept nearly ten hours, in that case. All right! I will be on deck in a few seconds."
Hardly were the words out of his mouth when there arose on deck a fearful outcry, as of men in the extremity of fear and dismay; and before Frobisher and Drake had planted their feet on the first steps of the companion-ladder, the ship struck heavily, plunged forward, and then struck again. At the same moment the electric lights went out, and everything was in darkness.

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