Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command Saved By A Hairbreadth

The furious fusillade directed against the fort at once slackened, after the explosion of that shell amongst the guns; while the fire from the fort redoubled, the rounds of solid shot, grape, chain, and shrapnel, with withering volleys of small-arm fire, sweeping through the rebel ranks like hail, and playing awful havoc among the closely-packed masses of men only partially concealed by the jungle. But the besiegers, as Frobisher had already had an opportunity of observing, were not easily to be discouraged, and after the first shock of surprise had subsided they quickly pulled themselves together again.
Another gun's crew came leaping out from the cover of the jungle and gathered round the wrecked field-piece; pieces of timber, empty ammunition-boxes, and even small branches of trees were secured and placed alongside the gun; and several more men seized the piece and lifted it up until it was partly supported upon its remaining uninjured wheel. The pile of material which had been collected was then built solidly up in place of the wrecked wheel, and the fresh gunners began to serve the weapon as coolly as though its original crew had not been blown into eternity a few minutes previously. There could be no doubt that these Korean rebels were showing themselves to be a remarkably brave and efficient body of men.
While the wrecked gun was once more being made serviceable, the Englishman observed that two of the other guns were being slewed round until their muzzles pointed seaward, and he at once surmised that this must be the direction from which that devastating shell had come. But crane his neck as he might, although he could see a portion of the sheet of water forming Prince Jerome Bay, he could not see the whole of it. The entrance was clear, however, and it was therefore obvious that the vessel from which the shot had been fired--for vessel it must be--had contrived to enter the bay unobserved, and must now be cruising about somewhere near the south shore.
Frobisher was very anxious to obtain a sight of her, for he greatly desired to get some idea of what her nationality might be. She might belong to any of the fleets of the various Powers that maintained squadrons in Chinese waters at that time; or she might be either a Chinese or a Japanese war-vessel. Any man-of-war would consider herself at liberty to interfere, in the event of a battle taking place on Korean soil, if only for the protection of the foreign inhabitants, whose lives might be imperilled in consequence of the hostilities; but Frobisher could not help thinking that the captain of the man-of-war was taking matters with rather a high hand in deliberately firing on one of the parties concerned, without first offering that party the opportunity to come to a peaceful arrangement. Such high-handed action did not appear like that of a European naval officer, and therefore the most obvious conclusion was that the vessel must be either Chinese or Japanese.
Even as Frobisher looked, however, the question answered itself, for moving slowly into his field of vision there appeared the bow of a cruiser, quite close inshore; and as she gradually revealed her whole length, her guns flashing continuously meanwhile, the Englishman saw that the Dragon ensign was flying from her peak, and that she was therefore a Chinese man-of-war. China, then, had at length decided to take a hand in the game, and her efforts were to be directed against the rebels. Knowing as he did the terms of the Tien-tsin convention of 1884 between China and Japan, the words "international complications" at once suggested themselves to Frobisher's mind, and, despite the awkwardness of his own position, he could not help rubbing his hands gleefully. Matters were rapidly developing; and if he could but escape from his present unpleasant predicament there might be an excellent chance for him to see active service again, either in the Chinese or the Japanese Navy--he cared very little which--for that was what things would evidently come to, sooner or later. Japan was herself too much interested in Korea to permit China to play out her own game there alone.
Frobisher had little leisure, however, for the contemplation of possible diplomatic action on the part of the Chinese or Japanese, for he had now other things to engage his attention. To his astonishment, as he watched, he saw that the ship which had just steamed into view was not alone; she was followed, close astern, by another cruiser of her own size and class, also firing heavily with her broadside batteries, and also flying the Chinese flag. A third and fourth vessel--gunboats these--followed in her wake; and, bringing up the rear, there were three hired transports which appeared to be crowded with men.
So this was no chance appearance of a single cruiser at a critical moment; it was evidently part of a preconcerted scheme--some arrangement previously made between Korea and China whereby the latter country was to lend her assistance for the crushing of the rebellion, a task which the Korean Government had apparently decided to be beyond its capabilities.
The Chinese squadron had been steaming exceedingly slowly when it had first come into view, and Frobisher could now see, from the flash of white water under the ships' sterns, that their engines were being sent astern; and a few seconds later the entire fleet came to an anchor, their cables flying out through the hawse-pipes with a roar which was plainly audible at the fort. The four men-of-war anchored stem and stern, broadside-on to the shore, while the three transports took up their berths about half a mile farther seaward, the ships themselves being screened from the rebel fire by the steel hulls of the men-of-war.
Fully recovered now from their first surprise, the rebels resumed their cannonade most pluckily, two of the field-pieces being directed against the fleet, while the remaining four retained their original position, and poured a well-directed and concentrated fire on the fort. It was apparently the intention of the rebel commander to reduce and take possession of the fort, if he could, before the Chinese troops should be enabled to effect a landing, so that he might have some shelter behind which to hold out until he could summon more rebel troops to his aid.
But the commandant of the garrison had evidently no intention of letting the fort slip through his fingers, now that assistance was so close at hand; and from what Frobisher had already seen of him, he felt sure that his visitor of yesterday was the exact type of man who would blow the building into the air, with himself and all that it contained, rather than surrender, even to an overwhelming force. The guns from the battlements crashed out anew, and although their fire was not nearly so accurate as that from the rebel pieces, yet, in the long run, weight of metal was bound to tell; and, while the shot was solid and had not therefore the devastating effect of the percussion shell fired from the war-ships, it began to be apparent that some of them at least were getting home, and that their effect was already becoming very galling to the rebels. The latter, now harassed almost beyond endurance by the combined fire of the fort and the ships, brought up, about midday, a company of sharpshooters armed with the latest breech-loaders, which they had somehow managed to secure; and by means of well-directed volleys, contrived to keep the men of the fort from their guns to such an extent that the fire from that building dwindled almost to nothing, so that one more of the rebel guns was released to be trained on the anchored cruisers, when the effect of the increased cannonade soon became apparent in that direction also.
Now and again Frobisher saw flashes of fire leap up on board the men-of-war, for it appeared that the rebels were also possessed of a few percussion shells; and he further observed that the ten-inch gun in the bow turret of the foremost cruiser had been put out of action entirely, thus giving a good deal of relief to the men who had been exposed to its fire. The weapon had been struck full upon the muzzle at the precise moment when a shell was leaving it, and the combined explosion had torn a length of about four feet off the end of the gun, and had lifted it clean out of its bearings, so that it now pointed skyward, its under side resting on the edge of the turret and threatening to crash down on deck outside at any moment. The ruddy orange tint of the light and the length of the shadows told that the sun was near his setting, yet up to this time no effort had been made to land any of the men from the transports. But now Frobisher observed that boats were being lowered from the steamers, and that soldiers were beginning to clamber down into them, while the war-ships redoubled their fire, with the evident purpose of putting the rebel guns out of action, and so making it the easier for the troops to effect a landing.
And now at length that terrible and continuous cannonade began to have its effect, especially as the garrison of the fort had begun to imitate the rebel tactics and were now harassing the foe with rifle fire. The garrison, being sheltered by the parapet of the battlements, were able to fire at leisure and without much danger to themselves; so that, although they were not such good marksmen as their opponents, the mere weight of their fire eventually began to tell upon the unfortunate men in the open, who had nothing but the fringe of jungle to protect them.
The field-piece which had previously been put out of action was now struck a second time by a fragment of flying shell, and collapsed once more on to the sand; and so fierce was the rifle and shell fire that was now being directed upon the little band of gunners that, although they made the most valiant and desperate efforts to repair the damage, they were driven away from the spot time after time, and were at last compelled to abandon their efforts. Then a second field-piece was blown completely off its carriage by one of the solid shot from the fort, and a few seconds afterwards a third gun was dismounted and its crew shattered to pieces by a shell from one of the Chinese gunboats.
Stubbornly, however, the rebels still clung to their position, and, again swinging round the two pieces with which they had been playing on the ships, they resumed the bombardment of the fort, in the hope of battering in a breach through which the place might be carried by storm, or compelling its surrender before the approaching reinforcements could arrive from the fleet.
So absorbed was Frobisher in the little drama that was being enacted before his eyes that, even when the muzzles of the rebel guns were trained on what appeared to be the very window out of which he was peeping, the idea never once occurred to him that he was in a position of considerable danger, and that he would be well advised to climb down; so that it was not until he saw the flashes of flame leap from the pieces as they were all fired simultaneously that he realised the full extent of his temerity.
Then, even as he flung himself backward off the support on which he was standing, there came a terrific concussion, followed by a rumbling roar as an avalanche of stone went crashing to the ground below; while the very building itself, massive as it was, quaked as though the whole edifice were on the point of crumbling to pieces. Frobisher, dazed and half-stunned by the tremendous shock, and nearly blinded by the shower of dust and mortar that came pouring in upon him, found himself lying on his back on the floor, surrounded by a pile of instruments and machines, blocks of stone, and other debris, until it seemed nothing short of a miracle that he had not been crushed to pieces.
As it chanced, however, he had not received so much as a scratch, and found, as he picked himself up, that nothing worse had befallen him than the acquisition of sundry fresh bruises. And as he was already a mass of contusions from head to foot, he felt that one or two more made very little difference.
He was just about to climb up again to his point of vantage--for he was intensely interested in learning the outcome of this stubborn little fight by the sea-shore--when he happened to glance upward in order to ascertain whether there were any more loose blocks of stone likely to be dislodged and fall on him. As he did so he caught sight of another ray of daylight shining into the gloom of his prison. Upon investigation he saw that the last three shots from the rebel guns must have been so well aimed as to have struck practically the same spot, for, sure enough, there was a ragged hole in the wall, slightly above the window and a little to the left of it, apparently at the junction of the ceiling of his cell and the floor of the chamber above, just big enough for him to thrust his head through. Also, what was more to the point, it was evident that very little effort would be needed to pull down more of the shattered masonry, and so enlarge the hole sufficiently to enable him to crawl through.
But, he decided, it would be sheer suicide for him to attempt to escape at this particular juncture. The mere appearance of his head through the hole would be enough to attract the entire fire of the rebels, since they would naturally take him for one of the garrison; and there was also the very probable chance of his being seen by the riflemen on the battlements, who would be able to pick him off with the utmost ease as he climbed out. No; it would be necessary to delay the attempt until after dark, trusting that meanwhile everybody in general, and the Governor in particular, would be much too busy to pay him a visit of investigation and inspect the damage done.
He therefore placed himself at the window once more, and soon saw that, even during the short interval of his absence, matters had altered considerably. Another rebel gun had been dismounted, leaving only two remaining, while of these one had had its carriage very badly damaged. Also, several more shells from the war-ships must have fallen among the riflemen, for the dead and wounded were now lying scattered about in heaps upon the sand, while the fire from the men in the jungle had dwindled very considerably.
The boats, too, had by this time pushed off from the sides of the transports and were heading--twelve of them altogether, crowded with men--in three lines, "in line ahead", as Frobisher would have phrased it, for the shore. Each of the leading boats was a steam pinnace whose work it was to tow the rest, and in the bow of each pinnace the Englishman was able to make out a small swivel-gun, with the gunners standing by ready to open fire as soon as the boats drew within range. It could not now be long before the end came, for, when once the boats had landed the troops, the rebels would be hopelessly outnumbered; and it seemed evident that Frobisher's hope of being rescued by the latter was doomed to disappointment.
By this time the dusk had closed down sufficiently to enable Frobisher to distinguish the trains of small sparks left behind by the fuses of the time-shells which were now bursting thickly over the jungle, the idea of the Chinese evidently being to drive the men concealed there out into the open; and the plan succeeded admirably, although not quite in the manner anticipated.
Frobisher had watched shell after shell fall among the brush and reeds, and had seen group after group of men come reeling out from cover, only to be mowed down by the rifle fire from the fort, when suddenly he perceived a small tongue of flame shoot upward from the seaward corner of the jungle--the corner which was, unhappily for the rebels, right to windward of them; and although a number of men immediately rushed to the spot and did all in their power to trample or beat out the flames, it was of no avail. The fire spread with appalling rapidity, and five minutes after that incendiary shell had fallen the whole of the outer edge of the jungle was a continuous sheet of flame, the roar of which was plainly audible to the imprisoned spectator.
Great masses of dense smoke were driven upward and forward through the jungle, and presently the hidden rebel soldiery came streaming out, driven forth by the flames and smoke; and so swift had been the advance of the fire that the clothing of some of the last to escape was actually smouldering.
Darkness was now falling rapidly, and, sorry as he felt for the rebels in their defeat, the young Englishman could not but admire the weird magnificence of the scene displayed before him. A section of thick jungle, fully a quarter of a mile long and a hundred yards wide, was one roaring, crackling mass of fire. The flames were leaping forward at the rate of many yards a minute, while they must have attained a height of fully thirty feet. Clouds of dense smoke billowed upward, their under surfaces vividly illuminated by the ruddy reflection of the leaping flames. Even the sea itself, for a mile round, was brilliantly illuminated by the glare, and the three little fleets of boats, which were now approaching the shore, with jets of flame spurting from the muzzles of their swivel-guns, appeared to be floating in liquid flame.
Here, there, and everywhere could be heard the explosions of ammunition as the flames reached the loose piles of cartridges which each man had placed beside himself while firing on the fort; and, with the continuous flash and explosion of the shells as they plunged into the earth, the black silhouettes of the men and guns upon that background of smoke and flame, and the deep, orange glow of the reflected flames in the sky, the scene so indelibly impressed itself upon Frobisher's memory that he is not likely to forget it as long as he lives.
The fire greatly assisted the garrison and the men in the boats, for it afforded them ample light to direct their volleys accurately, and also to choose the most favourable spot at which to effect their landing; and it soon became perfectly clear that all hope of success on the part of the rebels was at an end. Yet, even now they would not admit, to themselves, much less to their enemies, that they were beaten. Slewing round their two remaining guns, and collecting their scattered and sadly-depleted forces into one compact body, they abandoned the attack on the fort, and directed the whole of their energies to the task of preventing the troops from landing from the boats; enduring the persistent volleys poured into their ranks from the fort with the most stoical resignation. The gunners pointed and elevated their pieces as coolly as though they were firing for practice at a target, and the riflemen loaded, and fired their volleys at the word of command as steadily and as accurately as though there were no foemen returning their fire, and no remotest possibility that every man of them would be shot or cut to pieces within the next quarter of an hour.
And, had their numbers not been so dreadfully reduced during that fierce, all-day struggle, it is quite possible that they might have won, after all; for the guns were so well served, and the rifle volleys directed with such deadly aim, that the boats and their crews were beginning to suffer severely. Already two of the towed boats had been sunk, and had been cut adrift so that they should not delay the others; and so terrible was the punishment inflicted by their enemies that the landing party could not afford to stop to pick up their crews. The bay was known to be swarming with sharks, and it was not therefore probable that very many, even of the unwounded, would reach the shore alive.
One of the swivel-guns, too, mounted aboard the steam launches, had been struck and hurled overboard by a well-directed shot, and Frobisher could distinguish many a limp and lifeless form hanging over the boats' gunwales, with arms trailing helplessly in the water.
But the Chinese were no less obstinate and determined than their opponents. They had set out with the intention of landing, and they meant to carry out their resolve. The three steamers were still puffing bravely onward, and moment by moment the distance between their bows and the beach became less.
Then, suddenly, high above the crackling of flames, the rattle of rifle fire, and the crashing explosions of the guns, the young Englishman heard the clear notes of a bugle pealing out. It was evidently the command to fix bayonets, for the flash and glitter of steel could be seen as the Chinese drew them from their scabbards and fixed them to their rifles. A second call pealed forth, and the towropes were cast off, oars splashed into the water, and, with a wild exulting yell from their occupants, the boats dashed for the shore, the men in them hurling themselves into the shallow water as the keels ground into the beach.
And now the time had plainly come for the rebels to make their last stand. They were hemmed in on three sides--on one side by the fire, which was now raging furiously; on the opposite side by the cannon and rifle fire from the fort; and on the third by the men from the ships, who were now forming up in line on the beach. The only avenue of escape left to them was in the direction of the town, nearly four miles distant. But if they chose to retreat in that direction they could scarcely avoid being cut to pieces by their pursuers; there seemed, therefore, to be nothing for them but to remain where they were and fight until they were overwhelmed by superior numbers, killing as many of the enemy as possible before they died. And this was evidently what they meant to do.
The two remaining field-pieces were brought close together, their muzzles pointing seaward, and all the ammunition-boxes belonging to them and to the wrecked guns were brought up and placed behind them. Then the survivors from the day-long struggle formed up, three deep, on either side of the guns, the first line lying down, the second kneeling, and the third standing, so that the rear-rank men should not fire into their comrades in front when the volley firing commenced. The gunners loaded their guns to the very muzzle with solid shot--case, chain, grape, and whatever else they could find--and then took up their positions behind the pieces, waiting for the command to fire.
For a few tense seconds the two bodies of men remained motionless, forming a tremendously impressive tableau. There was the line of uniformed Chinese soldiery, their bayoneted rifles held at the charge, their officers standing in front and on the flanks with drawn swords; and on the other side was the little body of rebels, smoke-grimed, blood-stained, ragged and weary, but with indomitable resolution written all over them. Then the Chinese bugles again sounded, the officers shouted a word of command, and the landing party, with a wild yell of defiance, charged headlong up the beach, their swords and bayonets flashing in the lurid light of the flames. But they had scarcely covered half a dozen yards when the rebel guns crashed out, and their contents went hurtling through the closely-packed ranks, leaving wide lines of dead and wounded in their track, while immediately afterward came the rattling report of volley-firing as the rebels discharged their rifles. The Chinese troops seemed to be literally smitten to a halt before that awful storm, almost as though they had charged up against a solid wall, while the cries, shrieks, and groans that uprose into the still evening air thrilled Frobisher with horror.
The check, however, was but momentary. The troops instantly rallied, and before those cruel guns, or even all the rifles, could be reloaded, the Chinese were among the rebels, the cold steel got to work, and a scene of sanguinary, relentless, hand-to-hand fighting ensued, the memory of which was to remain with Frobisher for many a long day. Before the end was reached he could no longer bear to look on, but, climbing down from his perch, seated himself on the floor and covered his face with his hands.
For another ten minutes the fearful sounds continued unabated, and then silence gradually fell; and a little later the moon rose over a scene of carnage such as had seldom been witnessed even upon the blood-stained soil of Korea. Of the rebels not a single man remained alive.
So completely overwhelmed was Frobisher by the horror of what he had witnessed, that he sat motionless and so utterly oblivious to his surroundings that he never heard the grating of the key in the lock of his cell door, never heard that door open and close, and never knew that he was not still alone until he happened to glance wearily up, and beheld the Governor gazing down at him with a sardonic smile; while two other men, with masks over their faces, stood at attention but a few paces from him. One of them held a coil of stout rope in his hand, and Frobisher stared at it apprehensively. It was then too late to put into practice his resolves of the night before. The sword with which he had meant to do so much execution was out of reach; and he knew that the slightest movement to secure possession of it would mean a disabling wound from a bullet of the revolver which the Governor held suggestively in his hand. And he could not afford to take the risk, since with such a wound all chance of escape would be at an end; although, as appearances went, chances of escape appeared to be singularly scanty just now. The prisoner felt instinctively that a momentous crisis was at hand.
"Well, Mr Frobisher," presently exclaimed the Governor, speaking in his perfect English, "have you seen fit to change your mind since I last had the pleasure of seeing you? You will of course be aware by this time that you cannot hope for help from your friends outside--they have been very effectually wiped out, to the last man--and I really think you would be well advised to fall in with my suggestions."
"Sir," returned Frobisher, "I have already stated my final decision; and no amount of argument you can bring to bear will make me alter my resolution. You may do whatever you please, since you have the power, but I assure you that you will draw no information out of me."
"Very well," retorted the Chinaman; "you have spoken, and we shall soon see to what lengths your determination will carry you. I have known many men who, at the outset, seemed to be quite as resolute as yourself; but it has invariably happened that, after receiving the attentions of these assistants of mine,"--here he indicated the masked men in the background--"they have come to their senses with marvellous swiftness. As I really need the information I have asked you for in all courtesy, I have no option but to obtain it by the only other means available, therefore--"
He uttered a few rapid sentences in Chinese, indicating certain machines and instruments by pointing at them. Frobisher shrewdly guessed, from the man's actions, that he was instructing his assistants to apply some form of torture to the prisoner; and the young Englishman braced himself for the struggle which now seemed inevitable. The chamber was but dimly illumined by a single lantern, which his unwelcome visitors had brought with them, and by the flickering light of the dying flames from outside; and of this uncertain light he sought to take advantage, hoping that he might succeed in securing possession of a weapon of some sort before his enemies could divine his intentions.
Availing himself of the fact that the attention of the two assistants was momentarily diverted from himself to the Governor while the latter issued his instructions, Frobisher cautiously edged his way toward the spot where lay the sword which he had already fixed upon as a particularly suitable weapon, should he need one for purposes of self-defence; but just as he was in the very act of reaching for the weapon, the Governor happened to glance toward him, evidently guessed what his prisoner contemplated, and promptly levelled his revolver. As the muzzle came up it spouted flame, and Frobisher heard the bullet sing past his ear, to flatten itself against the massive stone wall. Again the vicious little weapon was fired; but at the precise instant that the Chinaman's finger pressed the trigger, Frobisher leaned over and grasped the hilt of the sword; and again the bullet missed. A third time the revolver spoke in as many seconds, and Frobisher's arm tingled to the elbow as the bullet struck the blade and glanced off the steel, luckily away from instead of toward his body; and at the same instant the two assistants, recovering from their momentary paralysis, hurled themselves upon him.
Standing where he now was, close to the pile which he had reared against the wall to serve as a platform, the prisoner raised his weapon and quickly swung it over his shoulder, intending to make a sweeping cut at his assailants as they came on; but the blade came into violent contact with the erection behind him and baulked his blow. Nevertheless he was able to bring the weapon into a position which afforded him the opportunity to receive the most eager of his adversaries upon its point. With a smothered groan the man dropped writhing to the ground, while Frobisher, hitting out with his left fist, caught the second man fair on the point of the jaw. The man went reeling backwards against the Governor at the precise moment when that individual again pulled trigger. The result was another miss, which so utterly exasperated the Chinaman that he hurled the revolver at Frobisher's head and incontinently turned and fled, locking the cell door behind him.
With two of his foes hors de combat and the other fled, the Englishman felt himself to be master of the situation.
Keeping his eyes warily upon his prostrate foe lest he should be shamming and should strive to take him unawares, the young Englishman now seized the lighted lantern and proceeded to hunt for the Governor's revolver, which he presently found and thrust into his belt, after satisfying himself that it still contained two live cartridges. Next he picked up the coil of rope and bound the prostrate man.
Hardly had he accomplished this business when he thought he detected the sounds of voices--that of the Governor and some other--and footsteps approaching outside his prison door. The next instant he was sure of it. The voice of the stranger was raised as though in anger or altercation, while that of the Governor was pitched lower, in tones that seemed to convey the idea of expostulation, entreaty, and apology.
There seemed to be a further altercation outside, the stranger speaking in an angry, authoritative voice; then the lock grated harshly as a key was inserted and turned, the door flew open, and a man entered, dressed in Chinese naval uniform, or what passed for uniform in those days, closely followed by the Governor, whose countenance betrayed a curious mingling of ferocity, apprehension, and anger.

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