Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command One

"Heavens above!" shouted Frobisher, as he and Drake picked themselves up from the floor, to which they had been hurled at the first shock; "the ship is ashore!"
As if to emphasise the statement, just as the two men succeeded in reaching the top of the steeply-inclined ladder a deluge of water crashed thunderously down on the cruiser's poop, driving in a solid mass along her decks from end to end, and causing her to bump again heavily. Then came a terrific shock, accompanied by the heart-stopping sounds of rending and tearing iron, shearing rivets, jangling machinery, and, worse than all, the despairing screams of men who had been caught by the giant comber and swept overboard to death among the rocks which were grinding and tearing their way into the unfortunate Chih' Yuen's vitals.
When Frobisher and his lieutenant gained the wave-swept deck, the first faint glimmerings of coming dawn were just appearing away to the eastward, and objects close at hand were beginning to take on recognisable form in the ghostly, grey dawn light; so that, although all the lamps in the ship had gone out with the stoppage of the dynamo, which had been jolted from its bedplate at the first shock, it was to some slight extent possible to see what was happening, and to dodge the masses of wreckage which were being hurled hither and thither about the decks.
Frobisher's first instructions were to the engine-room staff, to stop the engines, which the engineers had omitted to do, doubtless waiting for orders; and the next was to the carpenter, to sound the well and ascertain how much water the ship had inside her. True, she seemed to be firmly enough fixed on the rocks at the moment, but there was no knowing when she might slide off and, if she had taken in much water, carry them all to the bottom.
Then, without waiting to receive the man's report, he ordered such boats as still remained in a condition to swim to be stocked with provisions and water, and to be hoisted off the chocks ready for lowering in a hurry, should necessity arise. These, it was soon discovered, amounted only to three, not counting the steam-pinnace, which, Frobisher feared, it would be impossible to get into the water under the circumstances; and it was at once apparent that, notwithstanding the large number of men who had been already swept overboard and drowned, there would not be sufficient accommodation for half the remaining crew.
Meanwhile the seas, although they still continued to break heavily over the ship's stern, were not nearly so violent as the great waves that had swept the decks when she first struck; and the men were able to move about in comparative safety by watching their opportunity. After the first few moments of alarm and confusion, too, Frobisher's strong personality and cool confidence soon restored the men's courage, and discipline once more prevailed.
The carpenter returned after about five minutes' absence, and reported that already there was more than ten feet of water in the fore end of the ship, while in the engine-room it was almost up to the bedplates, and that consequently the stokers were drawing the furnaces as quickly as they could in order to avert an explosion. He also added that, during the brief period while he had been sounding the well, the water had risen almost a foot, and that therefore the vessel could not be expected to float much longer. Indeed it was now evident that, although the bows of the Chih' Yuen were supported on a ridge or pinnacle of rock, the after portion of the ship was in deep water, in which it was quickly sinking lower and lower, so that it was almost a question of minutes before she must either break in two or else slide backward off the rock and founder.
By this time the light had become so much stronger that it was possible to make out, in some small degree, the position in which they were situated. The ship had apparently driven upon an outlying ridge of rock, stretching a mile or more into the sea in a north-easterly direction, from an array of black-looking, rugged cliffs, which towered upward to a height of several hundred feet above the sea. The cliffs themselves shut out the view to the south-westward, but toward the south the shore line could be seen running away until it became lost in the distance, thus proving--although the light was still too poor to enable the men to see very far--that it was not some isolated, uncharted reef upon which the ship had run, but an island of considerable size. Although it seemed to Frobisher almost impossible that the land could be actually the island of Formosa itself, yet it was still believable when he came to consider the great speed at which the Chih' Yuen had been travelling during the storm, urged forward both by her engines and by the terrific force of the wind. In fact, a few minutes' consideration sufficed to convince him that this must indeed be Formosa, since there was no other island of such extent as this, anywhere in the vicinity, upon which the cruiser could possibly have struck.
Seeing, then, that there was no time to be lost, Frobisher gave orders for the boats to be hoisted out, as many men as they could safely hold being told off to each, with instructions that, upon their cargoes being landed, they were to be brought back to the ship by a crew selected among themselves, for the remainder of the men. In the meantime, while the boats were transferring some of the men to the shore, the remainder were to set to work to construct rafts as quickly as possible out of the raffle of wreckage washing about the deck and alongside, so that, in the event of the boats not having time to make more than the one trip, those left behind should have some means of saving their lives other than by swimming.
Very fortunately, the now fast-increasing light disclosed a strip of sandy beach, on the west side of, and very largely sheltered by, the ridge of rocks on which the Chih' Yuen had struck; and it was for this spot that Frobisher directed the boats to make, as offering the most suitable landing-place in sight.
These orders given, the men rushed to execute them, and in a few minutes the first boat was ready for lowering into the water. The crew got in, while others stood by the tackles, prepared to lower away at the word of command. Drake, carefully watching the seas sweeping up behind the ship, waited until an especially heavy wave dashed past, and then, when the ensuing "smooth" arrived, gave the word to let run. The boat dropped down the cruiser's steep side like a rocket, hit the water with a resounding splash, the bow and stern men unhooked the tackles, the oars pushed the little craft away from the ship's side, and the perilous journey toward the beach was commenced.
Time after time it appeared as though the boat must be overrun by the sea and swamped; but the coxswain in charge of her was an old man-o'-war's-man, and each time he avoided disaster by a hairbreadth, until, at the expiration of a breathless five minutes, Frobisher saw her living cargo leap safely out on the beach, and heaved a sigh of relief. By this time, too, the second and third boats had been got into the water without mishap, and were also on their way shoreward, leaving about a hundred and fifty men still remaining aboard the cruiser, working like madmen to complete their raft; for it now appeared almost certain that the Chih' Yuen could not live long enough to allow all hands to be taken off by the boats.
The engine-room staff had been driven on deck some time previously by the inrush of water, and were also making a raft for themselves up in the bows of the ship. Others were busily engaged in getting up such unspoiled provisions as they could lay their hands on; and yet another party, headed by Frobisher himself, was collecting a little armoury of weapons on deck, ready to be taken ashore, for the Englishman had heard some ugly yarns of the savage character of the natives of the island, and their methods of treatment of such shipwrecked crews as were unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. Among these yarns were one or two to the effect that they were also strongly addicted to cannibalism; and neither he nor Drake, nor indeed any of the rest, were at all desirous of ending their careers as part of the ingredients of a cannibal banquet on the desolate and forbidding shores of Formosa.
Unfortunately, the magazine was flooded, so that it was impossible to procure any ammunition for the fire-arms, but all the rifles in the arm-belts happened to be loaded in readiness for the expected encounter with the Japanese gunboat and transports; these were therefore unloaded and the cartridges placed in a box for safe transit. The officers' revolvers were also all fully charged, while Frobisher, Drake, and the second lieutenant had a small quantity of revolver cartridge loose in their cabins. This was added to the general store, and it was then found that the entire supply of ammunition available amounted to three hundred rounds of rifle ammunition and a little over a hundred rounds of revolver cartridge.
This, together with a supply of rifles, revolvers, and cutlasses, formed part of the second cargo of the first boat, which had by this time returned to the wreck; and she was soon on her way back to the shore, with a small party of seamen as well as the weapons.
Frobisher was on the point of going below again, to endeavour to rescue a few more articles likely to be of use to people in their position, when Drake suddenly shouted:
"Look out, sir; look out, men! Jump for your lives; the ship is sinking under us!"
And indeed, even as the words left Drake's lips, with a terrible grinding sound of rending iron and timber the Chih' Yuen began to slide backward off the sharp pinnacle of rock that supported her bows.
Some of the men followed Drake's advice and leaped overboard, others seized anything handy that would serve to support them, while one small body of seamen made herculean efforts to launch the half-completed raft. But these last were too late; the structure had been made of large dimensions on purpose to sustain the weight of a considerable number of men, and it was too heavy to be moved unless all hands had applied themselves to the task. It refused to budge, and while the men were still struggling with it, the cruiser slid clear of the last ridge of rock into the sea in a terrific swirl of foaming water, rolled sluggishly once or twice, with the water up to the level of her gun casemates, and then slowly capsized and sank, throwing all the men who were fortunate enough to have been above-deck into the water, where a terrible scene of struggling among the drowning at once ensued.
Quite a large proportion of the Chinese were unable to swim, and those of them who possessed no spar or piece of plank to cling to either strove to save themselves by clutching at the nearest swimmer, or fought to tear their more fortunate companions from their supports and seize them for themselves. There were many exhibitions of mad brutality, selfishness, and cowardice, as there too frequently are on such occasions; but these were redeemed by the heroic deeds of others who retained their senses and their manhood.
The raft had, of course, floated clear when the ship sank; and Frobisher and Drake, after being submerged so long by the suction of the sinking craft as to be almost suffocated, were lucky enough to come to the surface close alongside it. Having gained the raft, they at once set to work to haul on board everybody within reach, and then, with the assistance of a few oars which had floated free of the broken boats remaining on the cruiser, the occupants managed to propel the raft, despite the heavy sea still running, to a large grating, to which half a dozen men were clinging, submerged to their chins.
By this time, however, the raft was as heavily weighted as it could safely be--the water, indeed, was sweeping over it at times in such volume as to bury the men almost to their waists; and it was fortunate for its occupants that the other two boats now returned and, getting alongside, proceeded to relieve it of some of its living burden, otherwise a great number would inevitably have soon been swept away to death.
There were still a few men either swimming or clinging to pieces of wreckage, and when these had been taken on board the boats, the mournful harvest was completed. Save for spars, gratings, and fragments of wreckage, the sea was clear of every trace of the once-proud cruiser. All the survivors of the catastrophe were either ashore, on the raft, or divided between the two boats; and after another careful scrutiny in every direction, Frobisher recognised that there were no more to be saved, and ordered the boats to pass lines aboard the raft and tow it to the shore.
The landing was effected in safety, except for the loss of one man, who was snapped up by a shark as he sprang out of one of the boats to help to run her up the beach. The great fish swooped up with a rush, turned on its side in the shallow water, and dragged the man away before a hand could be lifted to rescue him. His despairing shriek rang in the ears of everybody for many a day afterwards; yet his fate was a lucky one compared to that in store for some of those who stood shivering and wet upon that sandy beach in the chill air of early morning.
Once safely ashore, Frobisher proceeded to count the survivors; and out of the crew of three hundred and thirty men who were on board the Chih' Yuen when she left Wei-hai-wei, he found only a hundred and forty remaining. Of the others, some had been washed overboard during the typhoon, more had been swept away when the ship first struck, and the rest had gone down when she sank, either between her decks or sucked down and drowned in the vortex caused by the sinking hull.
This was no time for repining, however; they were not yet by any means out of the wood, and there was a good deal of work to be done at once. First of all, the provisions and water-casks were left on the beach under a guard, while two parties, headed by Frobisher and Drake respectively, armed themselves from the stock of weapons brought ashore, and went off in different directions, in search, first, of a water supply, and secondly, of a spot in its immediate neighbourhood where they might construct some sort of a defence to protect themselves from any attack until rescued.
That there was urgent need for such a structure was very soon demonstrated, for scarcely had Frobisher and his party penetrated a quarter of a mile into the jungle, when they were saluted by a shower of spears and arrows that stretched no less than thirteen of their number dead on the ground, and wounded several others. Frobisher immediately threw his men roughly into a square formation, and fired a volley into the surrounding bush, in the midst of which naked brown forms could be seen flitting hither and thither; and by the volume of shrieks, groans, and cries that arose immediately after the discharge, it seemed that he had taught the savage natives a sharp and wholesome lesson. At any rate, they retreated in confusion; and soon afterward Frobisher was fortunate enough to discover a spot that would serve admirably as a site for a sort of blockhouse or fort. There was a spring of good water sufficient in quantity to supply the needs of his whole force, an open space of ground on which the structure could be built, and an abundance of small timber that could easily be worked up into palisading with the assistance of the tools from the carpenter's chest--one of the first things that Frobisher had thought of sending ashore, after the arms and ammunition.
The party was therefore divided, one half remaining to defend the chosen site, if necessary, while the other half was dispatched to inform Drake of their success, and to bring up the beach party with the provisions and water-casks, arms, and boxes of cartridge. The boats, Frobisher ordered, were to be hauled as far up the beach as possible, together with the raft, and all of them were to be well secured. It was not considered very likely that the savages would attempt to seize the boats, for they would not know how to handle them; but if they did, Frobisher was determined that the task should be made as difficult for them as possible. That they might break them up for the sake of the nails was a contingency that would have to be faced, as he dared not leave a small guard to protect them, and had not men enough to be able to leave a large one.
When Drake arrived with his exploring party, he informed Frobisher that he, too, had been attacked by a party of the natives, although there had apparently not been so many of them in his case as in that of the captain, and a few shots fired into the jungle had been sufficient to clear the road for them. These two incidents served to convince Frobisher that there had been no exaggeration in the tales concerning the dangerous character of the Formosan savages; and he realised that the sooner a stockade and fort of some description could be erected, the better it would be for all of them.
The carpenter's chest was therefore at once opened, and the available tools divided among as many as the supply would allow; and while four men with axes started to cut down small trees of a size suitable to make posts for the stockade, others set to work with their cutlasses--for want of better instruments--to mow down and root up the scrub with which the site of the proposed fort was covered, putting it on one side for use afterward as a protective hedge. Others, again, using the saws, proceeded to cut the trees into suitable lengths as soon as they were felled by the axemen; a fourth party, using their cutlasses as spades, undertook to dig holes for the reception of the finished posts; and the remainder were employed in the task of guarding the labourers, with rifle and drawn cutlass, from the chance of attack by the savages.
By midday, when all hands sat down to a hasty meal, the actual erection of the stockade had been commenced, and by the time that darkness had fallen the first line of posts was completed, in the form of a square some thirty feet by thirty, all but a length of about twelve feet, which perforce had to be left open for that night, since the men could not work in the dark--a guard being posted there to prevent any unauthorised persons from entering.
Fires were lighted all round the outside of the stockade, so that no savages could approach without being seen; while light of every description in the interior of the enclosure was strictly forbidden by Frobisher, in order that the advantage should be all on the side of the defenders, in the event of attack.
Half a dozen men were told off to take the first spell at guarding the twelve-foot gap in the palisading, and two more were stationed at loopholes which had been formed in each of the other three sides, to prevent a surprise from either of those directions. Then, rifles and revolvers having been reloaded and piled in different parts of the enclosure, ready to hand, and cutlasses resharpened on the grindstone belonging to the tool-chest and placed close to their owners' hands, the remainder of the little company stretched themselves out on beds of bracken, which had been cut during the day, and in a few minutes were fast asleep, completely worn out by the fatigue and excitement of a very long and arduous day.
Frobisher, however, though extremely tired, would not permit himself to sleep, feeling to the full the responsibility resting on his shoulders for the safety of his men; but he insisted that Drake should do so, for he had been awake most of the previous night while Frobisher was resting. To keep himself awake, the captain periodically perambulated round the stockade, constantly replenishing the watch fires, which had been placed at a considerable distance from the fort, and seeing that the men told off for sentry duty were keeping awake and on the alert.
But strive as he might against the temptation to close his eyes, if only for a moment, he found himself continually nodding, even as he walked; and once or twice he awakened to the realisation that he had, for a few seconds, actually been walking in his sleep. The unfortunate watchmen, too, were constantly needing to be roused; and before long Frobisher found that, each time he made the rounds, it was necessary to reawaken them, all of them being found sleeping, leaning on their rifles or against the stockade.
All the while he, too, was becoming more and more drowsy; and at last, shortly after midnight, he determined to rouse the second lieutenant and a dozen of the sleepers to take the place of those who had been doing the first spell. Accordingly he reeled in through the opening in the stockade, scarcely noticing that the men who were supposed to be guarding the gap were all so nearly asleep that they were quite useless as sentries.
It took him some little time, in the darkness, to find the spot where the second lieutenant was lying; and he was just shaking the man gently by the shoulder to rouse him when the still night air was rent by a most heart-shaking yell, instantly followed by several shrill screams of agony in quick succession. As Frobisher started to his feet in horror he saw the somnolent sentries at the gap in the very act of falling under the flashing blades of a horde of yelling, shouting, ferocious savages who, at the first wild rush, had broken into the fort, and were now spearing the hapless Chinese seamen, who, scarcely half-awake, were blindly searching for their rifles and cutlasses.
Himself armed, Frobisher desperately strove to break through and get to the front, so that he might in some degree stem the rush until his men could recover their wits; but it could not be done. The Chinese were being driven backward and jammed together by sheer weight of numbers, until they could move neither hand nor foot, and were being slaughtered like sheep. The last thing that Frobisher was conscious of was that he was shouting frenziedly for Drake; then something flashed before his eyes, a thousand sparks danced through his brain, and he knew no more.

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