Desperate as the situation undoubtedly was, Captain Frobisher was not the man to yield without a struggle. He was cornered, and he knew it. Nothing short of a miracle could extricate him from the position in which the momentary panic of the other boarding party had placed him by the withdrawal of the Su-chen; but he determined that, if he was to die, he would not die alone.
With this resolution, he renewed the fight with even greater desperation than before, if that were possible; and so formidable a foe did he become that, for a few seconds, the pirates in front of him wavered and all but broke. His tall, strong figure, as he advanced bareheaded, with set teeth and gleaming eyes, and that long ruddily-gleaming strip of steel which played here, there, and everywhere with the swiftness of light, made up a spectacle sufficiently awe-inspiring to terrify any man, one would have thought; but many of the pirates were themselves almost as big and strong as Frobisher, and were thoroughly accustomed to desperate, hand-to-hand fighting. Their hesitation was therefore but momentary, and the next instant they had closed round him like a pack of hungry wolves, snarling and spitting curses at him, and even striving to pull him down with their hands.
Gaining the opportunity of an instant's breathing space, Frobisher glanced quickly behind him to discover how many of his men were left to him, and was horrified to find that, out of the forty men who had followed him on to the deck of the junk, but ten remained on their feet, while of those ten, fully half were bleeding from more or less severe wounds which would quickly put them hors de combat. There was therefore not the smallest possibility of cutting a way through the dense throng that surrounded them and leaping over the side into the water, as he had at first thought of doing; and there seemed nothing to be done but to sell his life and the lives of his followers as dearly as possible--for he was quite resolved to die rather than fall alive into the hands of the pirates, having already heard something of the tender mercies of the Chinese to their prisoners.
Unhappily for Frobisher, however, he was unable to control circumstance, and, not having eyes in the back of his head, he was unaware of what was happening behind him. He did not know that a few seconds later his followers were all cut down and slain, and that he remained fighting alone, without a single protector at his back, and with his enemies swarming all round him. Neither did he observe the chief, whom he had been trying to reach unsuccessfully ever since the beginning of the fight, made a brief signal to his men not to strike.
Consequently he was not a little astonished when he suddenly felt himself seized round the neck and body by half a dozen pairs of arms, which pinioned his own and left him helpless. In an instant his cutlass was wrenched from his grasp and he was hurled to the deck, where more men immediately flung themselves upon him, holding him firmly down, so that he found it utterly impossible to move a limb.
Thereafter the business of binding him was comparatively easy, and he presently found himself swathed from head to foot in coils of rope, until he resembled a mummy rather than a living man.
His captors then rolled him contemptuously out of the way against the shot-riddled bulwarks, and proceeded to take account of their casualties. Where Frobisher had made his final stand the dead lay thickest, and he noticed with grim satisfaction that there were very few wounded men to be seen. His men and he had fought well, and he had nothing with which to reproach himself. The pirate chief scowled heavily as he scanned the result of the fight; but although he had unquestionably paid dearly in men for his victory, he had no compunction in ordering the more severely wounded to be hove over the side. Probably there were no facilities for doctoring them, and the chief perhaps thought they might as well die now as later on, and so save him a good deal of trouble in transporting them to the shore.
Just then the other junk bumped heavily alongside, and her men came aboard, reporting that their craft had been so badly damaged that she was in a sinking condition. Indeed her crew had hardly transferred themselves before she disappeared beneath the muddy waters.
The fourth junk safely accounted for, Frobisher comforted himself with the assurance that, with any sort of luck at all, the Su-chen ought to be able to make her way back to Tien-tsin, short-handed though she must undoubtedly be; and, once there, he knew a report of the failure of the expedition would be speedily carried to Wong-lih, provided the admiral happened to be still there. The latter would then be quite certain to send a rescue expedition up the Hoang-ho to recover any prisoners the pirates might have taken, or to avenge them if slain. Happily for the Englishman's peace of mind, he did not know that, although the Su-chen did eventually reach Tien-tsin in safety, she arrived too late to catch the admiral, who had left to visit some of the Southern Chinese ports and inspect the men-of-war on that station, and was not expected back, unless specially sent for, for at least a couple of months. And it was certain that none of the Chinese officials at Tien-tsin would consider the fact of Frobisher's capture and probable murder at the hands of the pirates as sufficient to justify the exertion of dispatching a messenger to recall Wong-lih, or even to give him news of the result of the expedition. So, although he did not know it, there was little prospect of rescue for Murray Frobisher, for some time, at all events.
The business of disposing of the dead and badly wounded men having been completed, the pirate chief, whose name--from the number of times the word was used when he was being addressed--Frobisher guessed to be Ah-fu, issued a few brief orders in barbarous-sounding, up-country Chinese; and the survivors of the fight got up the anchor, and slowly poled the junk back to her berth behind the small headland where the fleet had been lying on the arrival of the Su-chen. Observing that, in his bound condition, nobody seemed to consider it necessary to stand on guard over him, and being anxious to learn as much as possible respecting his present surroundings--with a view to future escape if he were left alive long enough--Frobisher contrived to bring himself into a kneeling position, after which he had not much difficulty in struggling to his feet, and was thus able to look over the side and see what was going on.
By the time that he had executed this manoeuvre the junk had left the main stream of the river and had entered the bight where the pirate fleet was accustomed to be concealed; and, at the far end of this, about a quarter of a mile from their present position, Frobisher distinguished a small wharf, some two hundred feet in length by about thirty wide, and standing about eight feet out of the water, toward which the junk was being steered. This was no doubt the jetty where the pirates unloaded the loot stolen from captured prizes, and whence they took aboard their own stores of ammunition, provisions, and water. There was quite a number of bamboo and thatch huts scattered about at the shore end of the jetty--evidently store-houses--while a stream of flashing, sparkling, crystal-clear water, tumbling down a narrow gully and cutting a tiny channel for itself across the sand to the river, was without doubt the source of the pirates' water supply.
Frobisher noticed that at the end of the jetty a number of the men from the fort had collected, apparently awaiting the arrival of their comrades of the maritime department; and as the junk came alongside, these individuals clambered aboard, and a vociferous conversation ensued, during which fierce glances and threatening gestures were directed toward the Englishman, who knew instinctively that the new arrivals were strongly urging that he should be put to death, as some sort of a sacrifice to the memory of the dead pirates, in whose destruction he had played so large a part. Indeed, it seemed at one moment as though he were to be slaughtered as he stood there, bound and helpless; for the new-comers surged forward, knives and swords gleaming in their hands, pushing the junk's crew backward until the whole crowd had gathered in a circle, with Frobisher in the centre. Frobisher expected death at any moment, and he was at a loss to understand why the junk's men seemed reluctant to let the others have their way, seeing that they themselves had been eager enough to put an end to him but a short time previously. Presently he noticed that Ah-fu had disappeared from the deck, and guessed that the men were merely waiting for him to return before allowing the people from the fort to have their way.
Presently the pirate chief reappeared, and was immediately surrounded by an eager, gesticulating crowd, who pointed to Frobisher and handled their blades in sanguinary anticipation. But, holding up his hand for silence, Ah-fu said a few words to his followers which produced an immediate and remarkable effect. Sheathing their weapons, they broke out into shouts of laughter, and began to discuss with one another the details of what they evidently considered an excellent joke; and Frobisher, knowing something of the Chinese pirates' idea of amusement, felt that he would infinitely have preferred being killed on the spot to being kept alive to provide sport for these barbarians. Quen-lung had certainly been right when he had prophesied disaster as the result of attacking the "Unconquerable"--as Frobisher afterwards found was indeed the name of the sect to which the pirates belonged--although what reason the man had had for being so sure, the young Englishman was utterly unable to guess.
The matter having evidently been settled entirely to the pirates' satisfaction, Frobisher's legs were unbound, so that he could walk, and, closely guarded by two men carrying long, broad-bladed knives, he was led down the sloping gangway to the wharf, followed by the rest of the crowd talking and laughing hilariously. Thence he was taken up the hill, a distance of a quarter of a mile, to the fort.
On reaching his destination he was amazed to note the enormous strength of the building, and the consequently small amount of damage that had been done by the fire of the gunboat. With the exception of the hole in the tower, and a few splintered and starred "splashings" where the missiles had struck, very little actual injury seemed to have been inflicted, notwithstanding the excellent practice of the Su-chen's gunners. The walls, he decided, must be enormously thick, thicker even than those of the fortress of Asan, which were stout enough to withstand anything less than heavy gun fire.
He was not permitted to examine the appearance of the building very closely, for, observing his hesitation, the two guards prodded him vindictively with the points of their knives, and pushed him before them through the massive stone gateway, which was protected by a strong portcullis at either end, as well as an iron double door between, strong enough to turn rifle bullets. Frobisher now realised that even if he had succeeded in sinking all the junks and reaching the gate of the fort his difficulties would only have begun, and that his plan of blowing in the gates with powder would have been completely frustrated by the existence of the outer portcullis. These men certainly knew how to protect themselves, and were determined not to be captured if human ingenuity could prevent it.
Once inside, Frobisher found himself in a spacious courtyard, round which the fort was built. The windows of the different chambers looked inward, thus allowing the outer walls to be entirely used for gun embrasures, rifle loopholes, and even arrow-slits, so varied were the weapons to be found in this robber stronghold.
Still in charge of the two guards, at a command from Ah-fu the prisoner was marched through a doorway in the wall exactly opposite the main gateway, and was hurried through corridor after corridor--all of them only dimly lighted by small openings in the outer wall--until he became utterly confused and lost even the remotest idea of his bearings. After a walk of about five minutes the guards halted before an iron-bound door, which, upon being opened, disclosed a flight of steps. Down these steps he was hurried, finding himself, when at the bottom, at the entrance to another long passage, which looked as though it had been hewn out of the solid sandstone, for there were no joints visible in its walls.
Removing a lantern from a hook, one of the men lighted it, and the journey was continued for quite ten minutes in a perfectly straight line, thus confirming Frobisher's impression that he was in an underground passage leading from the fort to some other structure at a considerable distance, probably constructed to afford a means of escape in the extremely unlikely event of the fort ever being captured. At the far end of this passage there were several iron-bound doors--a circumstance which Frobisher noted for future reference; and it was through one of the middle ones that he was conducted, arriving at once at the foot of another flight of stairs, similar to those at the other end, and finally at a large, square, stone cell, lighted on three sides by very small windows, high up in the walls--a most dismal-looking prison. There was a low plank bench covered with straw and presumably intended for a bed, two stools, and a bucket, these few articles constituting the entire contents of the chamber.
Frobisher's arms were now unbound, and he was thrust inside, the guards holding themselves in readiness to frustrate any attempt at escape. But the prisoner was by this time far too stiff and numb after the constriction of the ropes to make any such attempt; it was as much as he could achieve to stagger to the apology for a bed, upon which he flung himself at full length. He was utterly exhausted, and his body had scarcely touched the straw before he was fast asleep, in which condition he remained for nearly twenty-four hours.
When he awoke he found that a coarse meal had been left for him, while the bucket had been filled with water; so he made a hearty meal, and then proceeded to examine his cell by the light of the declining sun. His search, however, was fruitless: there was nothing out of which he might construct a key, as he had done at Asan; the windows were scarcely six inches square; in short, escape appeared an impossibility.
And now many days dragged out their slow length in dreary monotony; day after day his custodians brought him a supply of food; but, strangely enough, the time passed without his being subjected to indignity and torment for the amusement of the pirates, as he had fully expected might be the case. Possibly they were absent on some foray, and had postponed their entertainment until their return. Whatever might be the reason, however, the days slid past, without molestation to him, and lengthened into weeks, until, by the notches which he scored every morning on the edge of his bed, Frobisher found that he had been just thirteen weeks in confinement. Thirteen weeks!--And, so far as he could tell, no attempt had been made by the Chinese authorities to rescue him or obtain his release; at any rate, there had been no sounds of fighting, no report of guns from the river; and he was being slowly forced to the conclusion that his very existence had been forgotten, or else that it was thought not worth while to throw away any more valuable Chinese lives in order to effect the rescue of so unimportant a personage as an English mercenary.
Then, one morning, when Frobisher awoke and commenced to dress--for he had made a practice of undressing at night, that he might feel the cleaner and more refreshed next day--he discovered, to his astonishment, that his boots had mysteriously disappeared during the night. He searched everywhere for them, but they were nowhere to be found. For whatever reason--and he puzzled himself to think of a satisfactory one-- his foot-gear was undoubtedly missing, and there was an end of the matter. The curious happening vexed him considerably. It seemed such an idiotic trick to play; and the more he thought about the matter the more convinced he became that this joke, or whatever it was intended to be, had a deeper significance than he had at first imagined.
Since his arrival in China he had contrived to acquire a fragmentary knowledge of the language, and by its means he endeavoured to ascertain from the man who nightly brought him food the reason for the apparently senseless prank; but the fellow either could not or would not understand, and Frobisher was obliged to give up the attempt.
The jailer had hitherto been in the habit of closing the iron-bound door behind him with a slam, rattling the lock after him to make sure that it was fastened, when he brought the prisoner's food; and this circumstance had come to be so expected by Frobisher that when, on the evening of the day on which his boots had disappeared, the man simply pulled the door to gently behind him and went off about his business without even trying the lock, the omission immediately attracted the Englishman's attention.
The man had never before been so careless, and Frobisher could not decide whether he had been thinking of something else at the moment, and had succumbed to an attack of absent-mindedness, or whether he had suddenly recollected something that he had forgotten, and intended to pay another visit to the cell. Whichever it might be, Frobisher believed he saw in the circumstance a possibility of escape of which he instantly determined to avail himself.
With stealthy footsteps he crept across the stone-flagged floor, scarcely daring to breathe lest his movements should attract some inconvenient person's attention. He had, it is true, heard the jailer walk away down the corridor; but perhaps, playing some stupid joke, the man had crept back noiselessly, and was even now outside the door, listening and chuckling to himself at the prisoner's foolishness in imagining that he would be careless enough to go away leaving the door unfastened. The mere idea caused the beads of sweat to start out on Frobisher's forehead; disappointment would be too terrible!
But he swiftly pulled himself together, and, with fingers that trembled in spite of himself, he touched the old-fashioned latch and slowly, very slowly, raised it, pulling the door gently toward him as he did so.
The door opened, and, scarcely daring to credit his senses, Frobisher pulled it still wider open, and a moment later was able to look out into the corridor. There was an antiquated oil lantern hanging at the foot of the stone stairway, placed there for the jailer's convenience, and by its light the prisoner was able to see that the corridor was empty. Then the incident of the door was no trick, after all, and the man had really suffered a lapse of memory. Twenty-four hours would elapse before he returned, and Frobisher's absence was discovered, and the latter hoped by that time to be far away, if he could but find some mode of escaping undetected from the building. The first and most serious obstacle in the way, the cell door, was overcome; now to find whether his luck would still hold, and if he could find another unguarded gate leading to freedom.
First of all, however, he must have some covering for his feet. He knew that he could not walk far barefooted over rough ground; and, if pursued under such circumstances, capture would be certain and speedy. He therefore removed his shirt and undervest, and tearing them into strips, he swathed the wrappings round his feet somewhat after the manner followed by the Spanish mountaineers. This done, he next had to ascertain whether the remaining doors between himself and freedom were locked or unlocked.
The first door he came to was the one at the foot of the stairs, and, as might have been expected, this was closed; but it was not locked. The pirates had clearly pinned their faith on the stanchness of the cell door. Close to this, in the opposite wall of the passage, were the other doors which Frobisher had observed when being conducted to his prison; and it was through one of these that he must pass if he was to escape at all. The passage itself, he remembered, simply communicated with the main building of the fort, and to travel by that path was tantamount to running into the arms of his captors.
With infinite care he tried the latch of the door on the left. It was locked.
Then he turned the handle of the door on the right. That also was locked; and his heart sank at the thought of the tremendous amount of labour that would be needed to overcome this obstacle--if it were possible to overcome it at all, of which he was more than doubtful.
While he was considering what to do first, his eye caught a faint glimmer of light shining on something on the wall, and he eagerly stretched out his hand to it. As he touched it his heart leaped, for the object was a key--obviously the key of one, or both, of the doors.
He fitted it cautiously into the lock of the right-hand door and turned it gently, and with a soft click the wards fell back and the door jarred slightly open.
Without wasting a moment, Frobisher pulled it wide and stepped outside, exulting in his new-found liberty. But, alas! his exultation was only momentary. An instant later he realised the cruel hoax that had been played on him, for extending over a distance of many yards in every direction was a sort of pavement of broken glass, pointed and keen-edged as a forest of razors. The glass had been so firmly fixed in the ground that it was impossible to remove it; and Frobisher instantly realised that his escape that way was most effectually barred. Even with strong boots on, it would have been a difficult enough matter to traverse that glass-strewn patch without cutting one's feet to pieces; and with feet merely protected by thin wrappings of wool and linen, the thing was an impossibility.
This, then, was the meaning of the removal of his boots; and, as he realised the sardonic cruelty of the men who could invent such a device for tormenting a prisoner, his heart almost failed him. It seemed as though he were doomed to remain for ever immured in this horrible place.