Once fairly settled on board the Chih' Yuen, although there turned out to be an enormous amount of work to be done, and numerous little matters to be attended to before the cruiser could be said to be thoroughly "shipshape", Frobisher found time to look round him a little, and to cast his eyes over the remainder of the northern fleet lying off the city of Tien-tsin. Accustomed as he was to the sight of Great Britain's noble squadrons, and the enormous size of her battleships and cruisers, the Chinese fleet at first glance seemed utterly insignificant as a fighting machine. In the first place, the ships were few in number, and there were but two battleships among them; and both they and the cruisers would nearly all have been considered obsolete in England.
About a quarter of a mile from his own ship, and anchored in mid-stream, lay the two battleships which formed the backbone of the Chinese Navy at that time--the Ting Yuen, the flagship of Admiral Ting, with Frobisher's pet abomination, Prince Hsi, as captain; and the Chen Yuen, commanded, like his own ship, by an Englishman.
Both these craft were old and out of date, having been built as long ago as the year 1879; but their armour was enormously thick, and both of them carried two eighty-ton monster guns, placed in turrets and set in echelon, so that the immense weight of the weapons should be evenly distributed. The ships themselves were a little over seven thousand tons displacement, and were fitted with particularly long and strongly reinforced rams, upon the effective use of which the Chinese admiral was building largely--not without justification, as events proved.
These two battleships completely dwarfed the fleet of cruisers lying above and below them in the river, none of these being of more than three thousand five hundred tons--less than half the size of the flagship, and of course not nearly so heavily armed. In fact, none of the cruisers carried anything more powerful in the way of guns than the five-inch weapons which Frobisher's own ship, the latest addition to the Navy, mounted; and of these the Chih' Yuen possessed only two, one in a barbette forward, and one similarly mounted aft.
Then came two sister ships, cruisers of three thousand tons, the Yen-fu and the Kau-ling, armoured vessels, and one of two thousand seven hundred tons, also armoured, named the Shan-si; while close up under the walls of the city lay a couple of protected cruisers, of two thousand five hundred tons each, the Yung-chau and the Tung-yen. Frobisher's old acquaintance, the Hat-yen, which had been Admiral Wong-lih's flagship at the battle of Asan, was also to be seen busily preparing for sea; and the dispatch vessel San-chau, which he likewise recognised, had also been pressed into service. The Su-chen, in which Frobisher had made his ill-fated attack on the pirates, was still in the hands of the repairers, who had managed to spin out the job of putting her to rights again after the fight ever since the time of her return from the Hoang-ho. Lastly, there was the old cruiser Kwei-lin, which had been in the Navy for over twenty years, and which had not moved from her anchorage for the last decade. She was absolutely useless as a fighting machine; and, short as the Chinese were of ships, the futility of taking her to sea was at once recognised, and she was to be left behind to carry on her former duty as guardship to the port.
In addition to the above-mentioned ships, there were seven torpedo-boats, which were to accompany the fleet, ranging in size from seventy to a hundred and twenty tons; but, unlike Japan, China possessed none of the type of craft known as torpedo-boat destroyers--T.B.D.'s for short. Japan had quite a number of these, all over a hundred tons, one or two being even over two hundred; and they were, of course, much faster and more heavily armed than the Chinese torpedo-boats. Japan also possessed an advantage in that her cruisers were not only larger than those of China, they were also newer, faster, and more heavily armed; and there were more of them. One ship in particular, the Yoshino, was larger than the Chinese battleships; while the armoured cruisers Matsushima, Hiroshima, and Hakodate were all well over four thousand tons, and much more heavily armed than any of the Chinese ships, with the exception of the Chen Yuen and Ting Yuen. These were superior only in the possession of the two big guns each: their secondary armament was not so powerful as that of the enemy's cruisers.
Frobisher, who, of course, knew pretty accurately the composition of the Japanese naval strength, shook his head as he contemplated the collection of vessels in the river. There was a sad lack of homogeneity in the squadron, which would render quick and effective manoeuvring extremely difficult. Some of the newer ships--his own, for instance-- were capable of steaming fifteen or sixteen knots, but the battleships were not good for more than thirteen, while some of the older cruisers could not be relied upon for more than ten or eleven; and as the speed of a fleet is necessarily that of its slowest ship, this meant that the whole squadron could not steam at more than ten knots or thereabout. The speed of the slowest Japanese ships he knew to be not less than thirteen knots; so, in the event of a naval engagement, the enemy's fleet would be able to outmanoeuvre the Chinese, and choose their own locality for fighting, as well as the range and position. It was a most important advantage to possess; and, as Frobisher considered the likelihood--nay, the practical certainty--of the Chinese ammunition proving faulty, he did not feel at all certain that China would come out on top, notwithstanding her possession of the two powerful battleships.
He was aroused from his somewhat gloomy reverie by observing a signal fluttering up to the signal-yard of the flagship. Running below to his cabin, he seized his telescope, and, hurrying up on deck again, read off the communication, which he was enabled to do by means of his Chinese secret naval code book, a few copies of which had been prepared with English translations for the use of the British naval officers in the fleet, of whom there were several.
The signal read: "Captains to repair on board the flagship immediately", and Frobisher then knew that the time for action was close at hand. A council would be held in the admiral's cabin on the Ting Yuen, and the admiral would inform his captains of his intended plans, and be willing at the same time to receive suggestions. It was to be, in fact, a Council of War, and Frobisher looked forward to it eagerly, as being the first actual war debate he would ever have attended. This would be his first introduction to war as a reality. Hitherto he had only taken part in sham naval battles; he was now face to face with the stern reality, and he rejoiced exceedingly.
Calling his interpreter to him, he had his gig ordered, got himself quickly into his full-dress uniform, handed over the ship to Drake's charge during his absence, and in a few minutes was being pulled across the quarter-mile stretch of water that lay between the Chih' Yuen and the flagship.
On his arrival there, owing to his ship lying farthest away, he found the remainder of the captains assembled, only awaiting his presence to commence business. He was greeted very cordially in English by Admiral Ting, with whom Wong-lih had already been in communication, and received a few very courteous words of condolence upon the disaster on the Hoang-ho. Then followed his introduction to his fellow captains, among whom was Prince Hsi. With this one exception, he was very warmly welcomed by them all, especially by his compatriots, Captain Foster, of the Chen Yuen, who, as a matter of strict fact, was a Scotsman, and Captain James, of the cruiser Shan-si. These were the only other Britishers present being captains; but there were several others in the fleet in the capacity of first and second lieutenants, and especially in the engineering department. In fact, with one exception, the chief engineers of the ships were all either Englishmen or Scotsmen.
The council was not a very lengthy one, for it was impossible to make plans very far ahead, since little information was so far available as to the enemy's movements. The first duty of the fleet, explained Admiral Ting, was therefore to proceed to Wei-hai-wei, where a fleet of transports was already taking aboard several Chinese regiments destined for service in Korea. These were to be convoyed by the entire squadron to the mouth of the River Yalu, forming the boundary between China and Korea, and landed there; after which the fleet's future movements would be guided by circumstances.
The probability was that enough information would be obtained meanwhile to enable Admiral Ting to locate the position of the Japanese fleet. In this event, the Chinese squadron would sail for the spot indicated, and endeavour to force a general action; for it was vitally important to China that she should obtain command of the sea at the earliest possible moment, and keep it; otherwise she would be seriously handicapped in transporting her troops to the seat of war, if not entirely prevented from doing so. Similarly, it was necessary to prevent the Japanese, if possible, from transporting their troops and supplies to Korea; and this could only be accomplished by first destroying or seriously crippling the Japanese Navy. In conclusion, Admiral Ting stated that he intended to put to sea that same afternoon, and desired his captains to make their preparations accordingly.
This decision was received with every symptom of delight by everybody except Prince Hsi, who argued long and forcibly for a delay of a day at least, giving as his reason that the flagship was not, in his opinion, quite ready for sea.
On hearing this statement the admiral looked very keenly at his subordinate, and asked him to explain his ship's unreadiness, while the rest of the captains looked the astonishment they were too polite to put into words. The ensuing explanation was somewhat unintelligible to Frobisher, notwithstanding the valiant efforts of his interpreter. But he gathered that the admiral considered Prince Hsi's reasons as quite inadequate, and concluded by informing the Prince, without any circumlocution, that he, as admiral, was quite as capable as her captain of judging whether the ship was fit for sea or not, that as in his opinion she was perfectly ready, to sea she should go, and the rest of the squadron with her, as he had already decided.
There was therefore nothing left for his Highness but to obey; but the spoilt scion of royalty showed very plainly by his bearing that he was considerably upset by the admiral's adherence to his decision.
Admiral Ting then signified in his courteous fashion that the deliberations were at an end, and dismissed each of his captains with a word or two of hope and encouragement; being particularly gracious to the three Britons. He added for the benefit of all that it was his intention to hoist the signal to proceed to sea as soon as possible after the skippers had regained their own ships.
Frobisher noticed that no sooner were these words out of Ting's mouth than Prince Hsi murmured a low-voiced excuse, and disappeared hastily from the cabin, as though he had suddenly recollected something of importance. He paid little attention to the fact at the moment, being too fully occupied with his own thoughts; but the circumstance was recalled to his memory during the short journey between the Ting Yuen and his own ship.
His gig had just passed under the stern gallery of the flagship, at a few yards' distance, when one of the Chinese seamen who were pulling the boat uttered an exclamation and covered his eyes for a few seconds with his hand, as though something had blown into them. Frobisher instructed the interpreter to enquire what was the matter, and was told that "there must be an evil spirit in the boat", for while he had been keeping his eyes on the Ting Yuen a blaze of light, "brighter than the sun", had flashed into them, nearly blinding him. The Englishman could see for himself, when the fellow removed his hand, that he was still dazzled.
Puzzled to know what had happened, for the sky was absolutely clear, with no possibility of the light being attributable to a flash of lightning, Frobisher handed the yoke-lines to the interpreter and turned round in the sternsheets, looking to see where it could have originated. A few seconds later he saw what it was. From one of the cabin ports in the flagship's stern, situated just below the gallery and in the position where the captain's quarters would almost certainly be placed, there came another quick flash of brilliant light, lasting but an instant, but extraordinarily dazzling in its intensity; and the Englishman at once recognised what was happening. Somebody--and he was able to form a pretty accurate guess who--was using a hand-glass or shaving-mirror as a heliograph, evidently either trying to attract the attention of someone on shore, or sending a message: it did not much signify which, for Frobisher was easily able to pick out the spot on shore where the light impinged. This was a window in a small, whitewashed house standing by itself in a large garden, situated about half-way up the hill; and that the message or signal was expected was soon proved to Frobisher when he saw, through his telescope, a man hurriedly dash out of the house and make his way through the garden toward the beach, where several boats could be made out, drawn up on the sand.
By this time, however, the gig had reached the Chih' Yuen, and Frobisher was unable to spend any more time watching the strange game that seemed to be going on, being fully occupied as soon as he got on board in giving orders to his officers to prepare the ship for proceeding to sea, the signal for which, as Ting had said, was now flying from the signal-yard of the Ting Yuen.
Just as the anchor was in process of being catted, however, he chanced to glance again in the direction of the flagship, and saw, lying right under her stern, and concealed from the view of those on deck by the stern gallery, a small boat; and in that small boat was the man to whom the signal had been heliographed. He was evidently talking to somebody through the open port of the captain's cabin; and a few seconds later Frobisher saw a hand appear through the same port holding something white that looked suspiciously like a letter or packet. The man in the boat at once seized it and thrust it into his bosom; then, after a hasty glance round, he seated himself, and pulled slowly back again toward the shore with an exaggerated air of nonchalance.
Frobisher could not avoid wondering who was the man that had been so anxious to send a message ashore, and also what the nature of the message might be that the sender was so intensely eager to dispatch at the very last moment. It must certainly be an important one to render it advisable to send for a special bearer to take it, instead of letting it go ashore in the usual way by the boat in which the admiral would send off his last official dispatches, notifying his departure to the Navy Council.
But, as a matter of fact, Frobisher could hardly be said to wonder very much about these points; for if he had been put to it he felt almost certain that he could have named both the sender and the contents of the message. Also, he thought that, without a very great effort, he might be able to name the man for whom that message was intended. What he did wonder at was the audacity of the man who dared to undertake so dangerous a business in full view of the fleet, and also whether anybody besides himself had witnessed the transaction. Perhaps the mysterious sender had reckoned on everyone else being too busy to notice the occurrence.
A voice just beside Frobisher at that moment testified to the fact that at least one other person in the fleet had eyes wherewith to see. The voice was Drake's, and all he said was: "I suppose you saw that, sir?" But from the tone in which the words were spoken Frobisher knew that his own suspicions were shared.
Frobisher glanced round him. "Ay, I saw," he replied, with set teeth. "There is a noose waiting for a certain acquaintance of ours, Drake; and the sooner it is placed round his neck and hauled taut, the better will it be for China."
Further conversation was out of the question, for at this moment there came the boom of a gun, followed by a string of flags fluttering up to the signal-yard of the Ting Yuen, which, interpreted, signified that the flagship's anchor was up and that she was under way. Then came another signal, ordering the ships to proceed to sea in double column of line ahead, the starboard line being led by the flagship, and the port line by the other battleship, the Chen Yuen.
Gradually the two battleships gathered way and proceeded to head down the river abreast of each other. Then came Frobisher's own ship, the Chih' Yuen, in the starboard division, with the Shan-si as her companion; the Yen-fu and Khu-ling came next, then the Yung-chau and Tung-yen; while the old Hai-yen and San-chau ended the lines, the fleet thus being composed often vessels, two of which--the two last named--were practically useless for the fighting line, but were to be employed as tenders or dispatch vessels as occasion might require. The seven torpedo-boats had taken their departure from the anchorage while the War Council on the flagship was in progress, and had been sent on ahead to the mouth of the river as scouts. They were to run a distance of twenty miles out to sea, to ascertain whether there were any of the enemy's ships in the offing, and then to return with their report to the entrance of the Pei-ho, where the battle fleet would await their arrival under the guns of the Taku forts.
The torpedo-boats, on their return from the scouting expedition, reported the sea clear of the enemy's war-ships, and the fleet immediately proceeded on its way to Wei-hai-wei, which was reached the following afternoon. Here things were in a state of almost hopeless confusion, and the troops waiting to be embarked were scattered all over the neighbourhood, foraging the countryside for provisions on their own account. Some of the baggage had been put aboard the transports; some could not be found at all; officers could not find their troops; and the men themselves did not know their own officers when they saw them: so it was not until the fleet arrived and the Navy men began to take things in hand that order began to be evolved out of chaos, and matters to straighten themselves out gradually.
At length, however, the last man, the last horse, and the last rifle were safely got aboard the transports, of which there were no less than ten, and the fleet with its convoy got under way for the port of Wi-ju, at the mouth of the Yalu, where the troops were to be disembarked.
The distance from Wei-hai-wei to Wi-ju is a little under two hundred miles, and the voyage was completed without mishap in about twenty hours, the whole fleet coming to an anchor in the roadstead just as the first shades of evening were falling. There being no facilities at the port for working during the night, the task of disembarkation was deferred until the following morning, and the soldiers on board the troop-ships seized the opportunity to indulge in a "sing-song" to while away the evening--the last entertainment of its kind that many of them were ever to take part in.
The transports were of course anchored nearest the shore, with the war-ships outside of them for protection in case of a sudden raid by the Japanese fleet; while outside of all, a mile distant, the seven torpedo-boats steamed constantly to and fro, acting the part of patrol-boats, and keeping a sharp look-out seaward, for the Chinese would have been caught in a trap had the enemy appeared while they were lying at anchor in the roadstead, unable to manoeuvre.
Night came down as black as the inside of a wolf's mouth; the air was thick and heavy, difficult to breathe, and surcharged with electricity; and to Drake, intimately acquainted as he was with these seas, it seemed that a typhoon was more than probably brewing. There was a sense of discomfort and uneasiness in the atmosphere which communicated itself to man and beast, for in the stillness of the night, in the pauses in the singing and uproar, the horses in their stalls on board the transports could be heard whinnying and neighing, as though not altogether at ease. Little balls of electricity came and went on the yards and at the mastheads, like mysterious signals, presenting a very weird and uncanny effect; and some of the superstitious Chinese sailors, who had had no previous experience of "Saint Elmo's fire", burnt joss-sticks and twisted their prayer-wheels, in the hope of scaring away the evil spirits which they averred were hovering round the ships.
From the moment of joining the Chih' Yuen, Frobisher had been working early and late to get his ship into proper fighting trim; and being thoroughly tired out by the time that the fleet anchored, he had turned in for a few hours' well-earned repose. He seemed, however, to have been asleep only a few short minutes, instead of some four or five hours, when he was aroused by a gentle but persistent knocking on his door.
In a moment he was broad awake, out of his bunk, and across to the door, being too cautious, in face of the stealthy character of the summons, to call a question as to who was there.
Opening the cabin door, he found Drake, who, with a worried and mysterious air, proffered the request that the captain would come up on deck for a few minutes, if convenient.
"Why, what's the matter, Drake?" asked Frobisher. "Are there any signs of the storm bursting?"
"Well," was the reply, "it certainly does not look any too healthy. But it is not on that account that I have disturbed you. I believe there is some hanky-panky work going on, sir, and that's why I want you to come on deck and see for yourself."
"I'll be up in a minute," replied the captain; and in less than the time specified he had pulled on his trousers, flung a greatcoat over his shoulders, and was standing by Drake's side at the taffrail. "Now, what is the business?" he said.
"It's got something to do with that Prince chap, or I'm a Dutchman," was Drake's reply. "I was leaning over the rail here, a little while ago, thinking of nothing in particular--for Lieutenant Sing is on duty until midnight--when I saw a light appear suddenly away in that direction," pointing. "There was nothing out of the way in that, you'll say; but this light was a red one, and, what's more, somebody was holding it in his hand, and was waving it about. That lantern, to my mind, was a signal; for after waving it for a few minutes, the man who held it began to open and close the slide rapidly, as though sending a message by flash-light. I don't know the Morse code of flash telegraphy, and for aught I know it may not have been Morse; but it certainly was a signal, and when I tell you that it came from the Ting Yuen, and from the same cabin, so far as I can judge, as the `helio' message was sent from at Tien-tsin, you will see why I thought it best to call you."
"You were quite right, Drake," replied the captain. "There was something very queer about that business at Tien-tsin; and from what you say, it would seem that the same man is playing the same trick here. I only wish I could catch him at his dirty work. It seems strange to me that nobody on board the flagship has got an inkling of--well, we will say, the unknown man's game. Or perhaps it is that they do suspect, but dare not speak? Did you by any chance catch sight of an answering light of any sort?"
"I was just coming to that," replied Drake. "I did. When the first set of signals was finished, the red light disappeared, and away in the offing another red light showed. That's what really made me come down and rouse you."
"Perhaps it may have come from our own torpedo-boats," suggested Frobisher.
"No," replied Drake, "it came from a spot beyond them, and--there you are, sir; look there! There's the light again on the Ting Yuen. Now, watch for the light from seaward in reply."
Frobisher did not do so, however. Without even answering, he darted forward, gave a few low-voiced orders, and then came back to Drake. Immediately afterwards could be heard the sound of bare-footed seamen running about, carrying out some duty, and then a man stepped up to the captain and announced that all was ready.
"Very well; wait for the signal," was Frobisher's reply, and he turned his eyes seaward, watching for the answering flash. A second later it came; and as it winked out, the captain placed a whistle in his mouth and blew three short calls.
In an instant the Chih' Yuen's great search-light blazed out, to the astonishment of Drake and sundry other folk, and began to sweep slowly and steadily back and forth across the horizon. The light on the Ting Yuen vanished instantly, Frobisher noticed, and the one to seaward went out immediately afterward. But the vessel from which it had been shown could not put herself out of sight so easily.
The beam of the search-light hesitated a moment, and then settled unwaveringly upon a little vessel about five miles away. She circled and dodged, but all to no purpose; she could not escape that unblinking ray, which followed her, relentless as fate, revealing every detail on board her as distinctly as though she were under the light of day.
That she was a destroyer was at once apparent; there could be no mistaking the long, low, clean-cut black hull, with the four squat funnels and the short signal-mast. Nor could there be any doubt as to her nationality. Chinese she was not, China possessing no boats of that description; and since she was lurking in that particular spot under the cover of night, there was only one thing she could possibly be--a Japanese scout. The locality of the Chinese fleet had been discovered, thanks to the traitor in their midst, and the destroyer would now return to her parent fleet with her report; and, unless the Chinese were very careful, they would be caught in the roadstead, like rats in a trap.
Frobisher watched the flying shape of the destroyer, undecided whether or not to try a shot from his heavy guns; but he soon realised that, by the time that the gun could be loaded and trained, the chances of making a hit would be small indeed. He therefore ordered the search-light to be kept going in case any other similar craft should be lurking in the offing, and, after a few words to Drake, went below and dressed himself fully. Then, late as it was, he ordered his gig, and had himself pulled across with all speed to the Ting Yuen. He smiled grimly as he pictured Admiral Ting's face when he should hear what he was about to tell him.