It was about midday when the San-chau anchored off the port of Tien-tsin; and Wong-lih suggested to his young protege that they should lunch aboard before going ashore to the Navy Buildings, which were at that time situated in the "Street of many Sorrows"--an ill-omened name, indeed, as after-events were to prove.
They were nearing the completion of the meal when there came a knock upon the cabin door, and the sentry announced that a messenger had arrived with a letter for "his Highness, the most honourable Admiral Prince Wong-lih". The admiral opened and read it, wrote a brief reply, and then explained to Frobisher that, the arrival of the San-chau having been observed, and his own presence on board disclosed by the fact of his flag flying from the fore-topmast head, the Council, then sitting in debate at the Navy Buildings, had sent to say that they would be glad to see him on a matter of importance as soon as he could make it convenient to come ashore.
"Further developments in Korea, I suspect," observed the admiral, frowning. "I pray that no open rupture between ourselves and Japan may occur just yet; for we are utterly unprepared. We must put off the evil day as long as possible, even if we have to humble ourselves before them for a month or two; for it would be absolutely suicidal for us to engage in a war with Japan at the present moment. Our ships are good; our men are excellent fighters; and to the outsider it would naturally appear that all the advantages are on our side: but alas! men, however brave they may be, cannot fight to win under the command of inefficient officers, and with arms, ammunition, and stores that may fail them at any moment. Ah me! ah me!"
"You feel, then," said Frobisher, "that war is inevitable?"
"I am sure of it," replied the admiral. "Perhaps not to-day, or to-morrow; but war there certainly will be before many months are past. I only wish I could bring the realisation of this fact home to some of those officials who are content to wait and wait, spending the country's money, if not on themselves personally, at any rate upon things on which it ought not to be spent; until the time comes, all too suddenly, when they will awake to the fact that they have procrastinated too long, and that their country is at the mercy of the enemy."
"Let us hope, sir," replied Frobisher, cheerfully--for he had begun to have quite a strong liking for the cultured and patriotic Chinese gentleman and sailor, and was sorry to find him taking so pessimistic a view of the situation--"that matters are not so bad as you imagine, and that China will issue from the coming struggle more powerful than before."
"We will, indeed, hope so," said Wong-lih, rising. "But I greatly fear that our hope will be unfulfilled. However, an end to these dismal forebodings of mine, Mr Frobisher! I am growing old, and am on that account more liable, perhaps, to look on the dark side of things. Let us go ashore now, and see what it is that the Council wishes to talk about. I will seize the opportunity to introduce you to the officials composing it, and we will get your commission made out and signed, so that you may be ready for service whenever called upon."
With these words Wong-lih went up on deck, followed by Frobisher, and the two men, entering the San-chau's gig, were pulled ashore.
Frobisher was very favourably impressed by the handsome appearance of the various public buildings, and was quite astonished at the size and magnificence of those devoted to the Navy Department, when he and his companion finally halted before the wrought-iron gates which gave admittance to the grounds surrounding them.
Wong-lih, exhilarated at the near prospect of a discussion upon his favourite subject, the Navy, ran up the steps leading into the building with the activity of a boy; and in a few minutes the two men found themselves in a beautifully-furnished antechamber, whither they had been conducted to wait for the summons to present themselves before the all-powerful Council. Frobisher himself felt just a trifle nervous at the prospect, but Wong-lih's countenance was transformed by a happy smile, while he actually sniffed the air from time to time, like an old warhorse scenting battle.
Presently a door, opposite that by which the two had entered, opened, and a gorgeously-dressed attendant stepped up to Wong-lih and saluted, saying something at the same time in Chinese.
"Come along, my young friend," smilingly exclaimed the admiral, as he rose to his feet; "the moment of your ordeal has arrived. Present a bold front, my boy; there is nothing to be nervous about, I assure you."
He led the way, through the door which the attendant respectfully held open, into another chamber--or rather hall, so large and lofty was it-- where Frobisher saw a group of Chinamen, nine in number, seated round an oval table on which a quantity of official-looking documents were lying. So far as it is possible to tell any Chinaman's age from mere observation, they were all elderly men, with the exception of one individual, who was obviously quite young, and who was seated at the right hand of the one who was clearly the chief official present.
He was a man of perhaps thirty, or possibly younger still, with a very yellow skin, a long, very thin, drooping moustache, and brilliant, coal-black eyes, deeply sunken in their sockets, out of which they glared with an emotionless, steely glitter that reminded Frobisher most unpleasantly of a snake. There was also in them something of the deadly malevolence that all snakes' eyes seem to possess, and the Englishman could barely repress a shudder of disgust as he found those eyes fixed on his, for he felt as though he had suddenly come in contact with some noxious reptile.
As they entered, the Council, with the exception of the man just referred to, rose and bowed solemnly to Wong-lih, who returned the bow ceremoniously. He and Frobisher were then signed to seat themselves, after which the Councillors resumed their seats.
Commencing with the old man at the head of the table, each of the members of the Council in turn questioned Wong-lih, and a long conversation in Chinese ensued, which Frobisher was of course unable to understand. He occupied himself with looking round the room and admiring the wonderful carving and the priceless tapestries on the walls, and was quite taken by surprise when he suddenly heard Wong-lih's voice calling his name.
He was then introduced to the Council collectively, and a number of questions were put to him in English, with which tongue he was beginning to think every Chinaman must be familiar, so many had he already encountered who were able to speak it almost as fluently as himself. Like many of his fellow countrymen, he had up to now imagined that the Chinese were a barbarous race, knowing nothing of anything that happened outside their own country.
Apparently he soon satisfied his examiners as to his nautical attainments; and presently he found himself in possession of a parchment which set forth the fact that Murray Frobisher was appointed to the Chinese Navy with the rank of captain; and he was informed that he was to take command of the Chih' Yuen as soon as she was ready for service again. Until that time he was to consider himself on the staff of Admiral Wong-lih, who would find employment for him in the interim. After this little ceremony a further lengthy discussion took place in Chinese, and it was not until late in the evening that he and his sponsor were able to get away and return to the ship.
Arrived there, they proceeded to the cabin where Wong-lih had taken up his quarters, and here Frobisher received an account of what had occurred at the meeting.
"It seems," announced the admiral, "that a dispatch has been received from our Minister in Tokio, informing us that the Japanese, although they have sent an escort for their Minister at Seoul, have decided to delay for a time the dispatch of a large armed force to Korea, and to await further developments. This is grand news, for it gives us a little longer in which to make our preparations; but our Minister also advises us to be on our guard, for Japan means to force a quarrel, sooner or later. Now, as regards yourself, news has recently been brought that the river merchants of the Hoang-ho have been greatly troubled lately by the excesses of a band of pirates, who are believed to have their head-quarters somewhere near the place where the old bed of the river leaves the present channel--that is, not far from the village of Tchen-voun-hien, three hundred miles from here. I wish you to take command of the gunboat Su-chen, and proceed in her to this place. You will investigate the matter thoroughly; and, if the stories are anything approaching truth, you will hunt down that band of pirates, and destroy them and their head-quarters. No quarter must be shown, Mr Frobisher; those criminals must be dealt with severely.
"The interpreter I mentioned to you shall be attached at once to your person, and I shall be glad if you will enter upon your new duties immediately. Oh, by the way, I have also had news of your friend, Captain Drake. He was told of what had happened by a survivor from your party; and he came round here in the Quernmore to demand that we send an expedition to rescue you. He appears to be very much attached to you.
"Of course he was told that such a course was not to be thought of, besides being quite useless; and he appeared to be very much cut up at the news, so I am told. He accepted a contract from the Navy Department for the supply of a cargo of arms, ammunition, and guns, and left in his ship for England only a week before our own arrival here. When he returns, should you not be here yourself, I shall of course inform him of your rescue, and so ease his mind.
"Now, Captain Frobisher, I have little more to say. Get away as soon as you can. Your crew is already aboard; and, if you need any stores or ammunition, indent for them in the usual way; they will be duly supplied. But there, I need not tell a British Navy man how to do his business. Good-bye, my boy, and Heaven grant you a safe return!" he concluded, affectionately.
The two men clasped hands, Wong-lih buried himself in a mass of papers, and Frobisher departed to bed to refresh himself in readiness to commence his duties early on the following morning. His last thought, as he dropped off to sleep, was that he was now Captain Frobisher, of the Chih' Yuen; and that it would not be his fault if he did not make her name famous in Chinese Naval history.
He awoke in the morning, however, utterly unrefreshed, for he had slept badly. A vague feeling of foreboding and a strong presentiment of disaster had oppressed him throughout the night, and his dreams had been haunted by a thin, yellow face, with long, attenuated, drooping moustache--a face out of which peered a pair of eyes, glowing like flame and with hideous possibilities of evil shining in their black depths. The face was the face of Prince Hsi, the youngest member of the Council.
The splendid, keen, invigorating air of a Chinese morning soon blew the cobwebs away from Frobisher's brain, and half an hour after leaving his bed he was smiling to himself at his own folly in allowing Prince Hsi's evil countenance to affect him to such an extent as to spoil his rest. The man couldn't help being born with a face like that; and perhaps an ugly exterior might in reality hide a very kind and gentle soul. By the time that Frobisher had arrived at the wharf where the Su-chen was lying, he had completely forgotten the existence of "the man with the snake's eyes", as he afterwards came to call him.
The interpreter promised by Wong-lih had duly presented himself to Frobisher on board the San-chan that morning, and the Englishman very soon began to find the man's services invaluable. With his assistance, the Su-chen was easily located, and Frobisher at once boarded her and made himself known, and read his commission to her officers and crew through the medium of Quen-lung, the interpreter. A very quiet, decent set of men they seemed to be, to all appearance. They gave him such information as he asked for, quickly and without hesitation; and, so far as he could learn on such brief acquaintance, seemed thoroughly conversant with their duties. He made enquiries about the amount of water and provisions that was aboard, satisfied himself that there was a sufficiency to serve them for the expedition, and then went into the question of the quantity of ammunition remaining on board.
This did not at all satisfy his requirements; for he found that, although there appeared to be plenty of small-arm ammunition, there was very little belonging to the machine-guns and the guns in the batteries; so, taking Quen-lung with him, he made his way to the magazines, taking his requisition book with him in his pocket.
It was then that he obtained his first insight into the subtle ways of Chinese Naval officialdom. He knew perfectly well what kind of ammunition he required, and how much of it, but he seemed utterly unable to find anybody who possessed the necessary authority to issue it. He was sent from one official to another, all of them gorgeously dressed and very eager to give every assistance; yet when the moment arrived for the stores to be actually given into his hands--well, they were heart-broken to give the honourable captain so much trouble, but would he be pleased to obtain the approval of his Excellency the honourable Somebody Else, whose signature was also needed before the ammunition could be removed.
At last, so disgusted did Frobisher become at all this delay and prevarication that he went back to the Su-chen, selected some twenty of the strongest members of his crew, and himself took them up to the magazine with a number of hand-wagons which he had collected, under much voluble protest, en route. Then, having found the required pattern of cartridge, he ordered his men to load the cases on to the wagons, and, amid the intensely-shocked expostulations of the outraged officials of the Ordnance Department, who were quite unaccustomed to fill a requisition in less than a month, the several indents were wheeled down to the gunboat by the Chinese sailors, who already began to show the respect they felt for a man who knew what he wanted, and got it.
The task was finished at last, and that afternoon the Su-chen dipped her ensign to the San-chau, on board of which Admiral Wong-lih had his quarters, steamed down the river Pei-ho, past the Taku forts at its mouth, and out into the open sea on her way to the mouth of the Hoang-ho, some three hundred miles up which lay the village of Tchen-voun-hien, at or near which the pirates' lair was said to be situated. During the hundred-mile run across the gulf of Chi-lih, Frobisher set his men to clean ship thoroughly, overhaul and polish the guns, and make things in general a little more shipshape than they had been since the time when the Su-chen left her builders' hands on the Thames.
Frobisher was fortunate in the moment when the gunboat arrived off the mouth of the Hoang-ho, for the sea was smooth, and the usually dangerous bar at the mouth of the river was passed with ease. But there were many reminders, in the shape of broken spars, and in some cases fragments of hulls, projecting out of the water, to show that the sea was not always in so gentle a mood, and that many other captains had been less fortunate. The bar at the mouth of the Hoang-ho is indeed one vast graveyard, both of men and ships.
Frobisher anchored a few miles up the river, and spent a whole day exercising his men at cutlass and small-arm drill, to smarten them up a little and prepare them as far as possible for the cut-and-thrust work which, he felt sure, the task of exterminating the pirates would ultimately involve. Early on the following morning the voyage upstream was continued, the Su-chen making not more than about six knots an hour against the strong current, the result, evidently, of heavy rains up-country, for the river--well named the "Yellow River"--was thick and turbid with mud, which had been washed off the surface of the land by the floods.
Mile after mile the Su-chen crept along, and the low, flat, uninteresting banks slipped gradually astern. A few junks were passed, but they were all too far away for Frobisher to communicate with them, as they were well in under the land, while the gunboat was obliged, on account of her draught, to keep more or less in the centre of the river.
One afternoon, however, there came from the man whom Frobisher had posted in the foretop, to give warning of rocks or shoals, a shout that there was a dismasted junk about a mile ahead which appeared to be trying to intercept the gunboat. She seemed, the look-out reported, to have been on fire, as well as having lost her mast, for he could plainly make out through his telescope the black patches where her deck and bulwarks had been charred. There were only two men on deck, he added, and these men were doing all they could to attract attention, waving something--he could not quite make out what--above their heads, and leaping about excitedly. There were other dark-coloured patches about the deck, but at that distance it was not possible to say whether they were the result of fire, or of something else. Frobisher, however, who had carefully listened to a report of the details from the interpreter, had the conviction that there had been some happening on board that junk other than that of mere fire, and that he was shortly to receive evidence with his own eyes of the activities of the pirates whom he was going to exterminate; for he felt certain that the dark stains were not those of fire, but of blood.
As soon as the unwieldy craft, which was progressing solely by the force of the current, approached to within a quarter of a mile of the Sit-chen, Frobisher rang his engines to half-speed, so that the gunboat barely made headway against the current, and thus awaited the junk's arrival. The gunboat was skilfully manoeuvred alongside her, and the crew, with ropes and grapnels, soon secured her, and assisted the two men who formed her sole complement up on deck. Here Frobisher, after giving them some refreshment, of which they were plainly in great need, questioned them through the interpreter as to the cause of their present condition.
It was precisely as he had expected. The junk had, it seemed, sailed a few days previously from Tchen-tcheou, a town about six hundred miles from the mouth of the river, with a valuable cargo of sandalwood intended for Tien-tsin; but on passing the spot where the old bed of the river used to lie before the channel was diverted, she had been attacked by no fewer than five large and heavily-armed junks, crowded with men. Before the crew could even place themselves in a position for defence, the junk had been seized and the men cut to pieces by the ruthless pirates. The two men standing on the Su-chen's deck had escaped as by a miracle, for, after taking all her cargo out of the junk and throwing dead and wounded overboard, the leader of the pirates had indulged his humour by binding the two survivors and laying them on the deck, afterwards firing the junk and setting her adrift. The men had secured their freedom by one of them gnawing the other's bonds loose, and they had then managed to extinguish the fire.
But--would not the honourable captain take his ship up the river, and wipe the pirates out, lock, stock, and barrel? Frobisher informed them that such was his intention; and, after asking the two men whether they would accompany him as guides, and receiving their assurance that they desired nothing better, he set the junk adrift again, since she was absolutely useless, and continued his journey.
At nine o'clock the next morning one of the two new men, who had been looking keenly ahead for a few moments, came up to Frobisher and pointed out what appeared to be a large, square, stone-built castle, or fort, standing some distance back from the river bank, upon the top of a knoll of rising ground.
"That," he announced, "is the pirates' head-quarters. There is a little bight just at the junction of the old and the new channels, and it is there that they lie in ambush with their junks. Now, sir, you can perhaps see their masts standing up behind that low bank yonder?"
Frobisher looked, and counted, indeed, five masts. They were, then, evidently those belonging to the pirate junks which had attacked the Chinese merchantman on the preceding day; and the fort on the hill, yonder, was the pirates' lair which he had been specially dispatched from Tien-tsin to destroy. He rubbed his hands gleefully and gave orders to clear for action; then, with his telescope fixed unwaveringly on the fort, he leant over the bridge rail, watching, while the Su-chen, her engines working at full pressure, stemmed the muddy tide on her errand of retribution.