Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command Tchen-voun-hien

The Su-chen was about five miles away when the fort first came into view, and for about a quarter of an hour she steamed ahead without any sign of life or of alarm becoming perceptible in the vicinity of the pirates' head-quarters. Frobisher was beginning to hope that fortune was so far favouring him that perhaps the freebooters might have set out on some buccaneering expedition inland upon this particular morning, and that he might thus be able to land, seize and destroy the junks, and occupy the fort during their absence; at the same time preparing an unpleasant little surprise for the pirates when they returned.
But his hope was doomed to disappointment. Still keeping his eye glued to the telescope, he suddenly observed a flash and a puff of white smoke leap out from a corner tower of the fort, and a few moments later the dull "boom" of a fairly-heavy gun made itself heard. At the same moment a tiny ball soared aloft to the head of the flagstaff on the battlements, which ball presently broke abroad and revealed itself as a large yellow flag of triangular shape, the apex of the triangle, or fly, being circular instead of ending in a point. There was also a design of some description embroidered on the flag in the favourite Chinese blue, but what the design represented Frobisher could not imagine. He had never beheld anything like it in his life, so he turned to Quen-lung, who was, as usual, standing alongside him, and, handing him the telescope, told him to take a look at the piece of bunting and say what the decoration on the flag was intended to represent.
Quen-lung obediently placed the eyepiece to his eye, and a few seconds later Frobisher observed the man turn pale and stagger backward, almost dropping the telescope as he did so. The man's eyes were dilated, his face turned the colour of putty; his lower lip had dropped, and his hands were trembling as though palsied. He presently recovered himself, however, and the colour gradually returned to his face. Frobisher asked what ailed him.
"Oh, sir," he answered, "turn back; turn back before it is too late. I have read the design on that flag, and know we can never hope to succeed against those who fight under its folds. I may not say--no man who knows may tell what those characters signify; but the men who belong to the Society that flies that ensign have never been conquered, and not a single one among them has ever been captured, although troops have been sent against them time after time. No one has ever returned alive to tell what happened; and we can only guess. They have sworn enmity against the whole human race, and their numbers are always being increased by the addition of men who have wrongs to redress, or believe themselves to have been injured by their fellows; and it is said that they always put their captives to death in an unspeakably horrible manner, although no witness has ever returned to tell the tale. I am sure that, if the admiral had known who the people were whom he wants to destroy, he would never have sent the expedition at all."
Frobisher looked the man up and down for a few seconds, as though he thought that the fellow's mind had given way. Then he said, sternly:
"What child's talk is this, Quen-lung? Do I hear a man speaking, or is it a boy, frightened by a bogy? What are you dreaming about, that you tell me I had better return without attacking these pirates? I am most certainly going to attack them, and my orders are to exterminate the whole crew of them; so you will very soon be able to disabuse your mind of the belief that they are invulnerable, as you seem to suppose. You say that no man has ever escaped them; but there are two men on board now to contradict that statement--the men we rescued from the junk. No, no, my good man; you've been listening to some old woman's tale and allowed it to frighten you. You'll see that you will be quite all right as soon as the fighting begins; you will do your part as well as the best of us."
This he said in the hope of infusing a little backbone into the man, who was shaking like a leaf; but his words had no effect. Quen-lung was terrified, there was no doubt of that, and it seemed to Frobisher that his terror arose not so much, from fear of the pirates themselves as from some supernatural power which he appeared to attribute to them.
"Well, master," he said resignedly, "if you insist on attacking them, you must; but you will not win. I know it; I can see it!" And without another word he walked to the other side of the deck and leant over the bulwarks, his chin resting on the palms of his hands, staring moodily down into the muddy water.
By this time the Su-chen had approached to within a distance of about a mile from the fort and the small bight in the river, inside which lay the five junks, and Frobisher determined to try a sighting shot at the building, to accustom the men to a changing range. He therefore ordered the men to load the four-inch gun forward, bring it to bear on the square tower from which the pirates' signal-gun-had been fired, and discharge it when ready.
The gun was loaded and trained, and the gunner laid his finger on the firing key; there was a deafening report, the boat quivered from truck to keelson, and Frobisher, watching, saw the shell strike and burst full on the centre of the tower, in which a ragged hole immediately afterwards appeared.
"Good shot!" he ejaculated, laying down his telescope. "Let us try a few more of the same kind, men. That will soon show those fellows that we mean business. Where's their invulnerability now, Quen-lung--eh?"
His words were drowned by a terrific discharge from the fort, the whole eastern front of which seemed to break out into flame and smoke, while a perfect storm of shot, shell, and small-arm missiles swept the ship, striking down men, ripping up planking and bulwarks, cutting rigging, and generally doing a tremendous amount of damage.
From all over the decks came the cries and groans of wounded men, mingled with execrations from the unwounded who had seen their friends shot down. Frobisher himself, when he had wiped the blood out of his eyes which had flowed into them from a small wound on his forehead caused by a flying splinter, was astounded to observe the amount of damage and the number of casualties that had resulted from that one discharge. The pirates had somehow managed to get the range to a nicety, and every shot had come aboard. There were no less than nine men killed and wounded, and the crew of the four-inch gun were all down. Unconquerable or not, the pirates were certainly marvellously clever gunners, and their weapons must be both heavy and modern.
At the same moment Frobisher observed a movement among the masts of the junks; and presently, to his amazement, he saw that they were coming out from behind their shelter, evidently with the intention of fighting him from the river as well as from the shore. Well, he would make short work of them, anyway. They were only made of wood, and a few well-directed shots between wind and water should send the whole fleet to the bottom in short order. With this end in view, he ordered every gun that could be brought to bear to be fired at the junks, meaning to clear them out of the way before turning his attention entirely to the fort; for he could see that they were crowded with men, and it might be rather awkward for his ship's crew if they managed to get alongside. The gunboat's sides were low, and it would be an easy matter to board her from craft standing as high out of the water as those junks.
The men sprang to their posts with alacrity, and soon the duel was in full swing. The junks were, like the fort, very heavily armed--much more heavily than Frobisher had in the least anticipated--and their accurately-aimed shot came ripping and tearing through the Su-chen's wooden bulwarks and sides with terrible effect. In addition to solid shot the pirates were using shell, and the air was soon full of flying pieces of metal, which struck men down in every direction. Only inside the iron casemates did there seem to be any protection from that deadly storm, and there the Chinese sailors were serving their guns coolly and with excellent aim. Shot after shot struck one or other of the junks, and Frobisher could see them actually reel under the impact; but so far no shot had been lucky enough to strike below or on the water line, and so sink any of them.
The Su-chen was now, he considered, quite close enough to both fort and junks; he therefore rang for half-speed, at which the vessel just held her own against the current, the junks themselves having anchored in order to avoid being swept down under the Su-chen's guns.
So the battle went grimly forward. Frobisher soon discovered that his big body was being made a target for small-arm fire, and was shortly obliged to leave the bridge, in order to avoid being shot. He therefore took up his post in the forward starboard casemate, from which position he could observe the enemy and at the same time encourage his crew to greater efforts. This he was obliged to do by signs, for at the beginning of the battle Quen-lung had vanished, and Frobisher was unable to catch a glimpse of him anywhere. He had doubtless sought the seclusion of his cabin, in the hope that there he might find safety, oblivious of the fact that the enemy were using such large and powerful guns that the wooden sides of the gunboat offered little more protection than he would have obtained out on deck. Frobisher determined to go and find him, when he could spare a moment or two from the matter in hand, bring him up on deck, and thus teach him, by the most practical of methods, how to stand fire without flinching.
At present, however, he had more than enough to occupy him, without thinking of Quen-lung. The fort had brought all its guns to bear on the Su-chen directly the gunboat became practically stationary, and it, as well as the junks, was making such excellent practice that Frobisher at length began to realise that he was in a very warm corner indeed, out of which it would tax his skill to the utmost to extricate himself, to say nothing of carrying out his expressed intention of destroying the pirate stronghold. There was, of course, still time to retire, to return to Tien-tsin and bring reinforcements, explaining to the admiral that one small gunboat was utterly inadequate to undertake so important an enterprise as this was proving to be; and this would doubtless have been his wisest plan. But this particular Englishman happened to be one of those who do not know when they are beaten, and the mere idea of retreat never so much as entered his mind.
He therefore went about from gun to gun, cheering and encouraging the men, sometimes training one of the weapons himself, and all the while impressing upon the crew--as well as he could by signs--the necessity for holing and sinking the junks as speedily as possible, and so reducing to some extent the severe gruelling to which the Su-chen was being subjected.
At last his constant exhortations began to have their effect. A well-directed shell from the four-inch gun--laid, as it happened, by Frobisher's own hands--struck the junk at the end of the line nearest to the gunboat full upon the water line, and exploding, blew a hole in her nearly a yard square; while from the interior of the smitten junk arose a chorus of screams, groans, and yells, proving that the flying splinters of the shell had done other work as well. Those on board the Su-chen saw the water pouring into the pirate vessel in a very cataract; she heeled farther and farther over, and in less than a minute after the shell had struck, righted herself for a second, and then plunged below the surface, carrying with her the greater portion of her crew.
"Hurrah, boys!" shouted Frobisher, "that's one gone. Repeat the dose with the next fellow, and we'll soon put the whole crowd of them out of business!"
The rousing cheer with which his men responded to words which they could not possibly understand, but the meaning of which was sufficiently clear, was answered by a yell of rage and defiance from the pirates, accompanied by another furious bombardment from their guns and small-arms; and Frobisher, gazing at the havoc caused by the discharge, and the bodies with which his decks were strewn, realised that the destruction of that one junk had but animated the pirates to fresh exertions, and that the victory was not yet even half-won.
Realising that it was imperative to silence the fire from the junks if success was to be obtained at all, he signed to the gunners to load and direct all their pieces upon the next junk, firing together, in the hope that the combined discharge might effect the desired result. And so it did. The missiles all struck the craft almost on the same spot, and a few minutes later she, too, took herself and her crew to the bottom, leaving only three junks to deal with--and the fort, which was blazing away merrily and doing a good deal of damage, though not so much as the junks, the gunners on board which appeared to be specially-trained marksmen.
The enthusiasm of the Chinese sailors at this second stroke of luck was immense, and they threw themselves into their work with unabated energy, despite the fact that fully a quarter of their comrades were lying dead or wounded around them.
The cries of the wounded for water were dreadful, despite all that could be done to help them. Frobisher had already told off as many men as he could spare to carry water, but it seemed impossible to quench the poor wretches' thirst; their cry was always for more, even though they had drunk but a moment previously. The unwounded men appeared to be quite indifferent, however, both to their own comrades' sufferings and their own chances of death or mutilation, and went on serving the guns as calmly as though they were at target practice. Frobisher realised then, as numbers of white men have realised since, that the Chinese soldier and sailor, properly trained and properly led, constitutes some of the finest fighting material in the world; and that, if a leader ever arises, capable of drilling and controlling the vast mass of material which China contains, it will be a very bad thing indeed for the white races. A properly-drilled, well-trained, well-armed, and capably-led army of perhaps fifty million fighting men would be invincible; an invasion of Europe by such a force could not possibly be withstood. That dreadful day is, however, far in the future, let us hope.
Frobisher now turned his attention to the third junk, still carrying out his plan of sinking them one at a time, and determined to lay and fire the four-inch gun again himself, in the hope of repeating his former successful shot. The shell and cartridge were rammed home and the breech closed and screwed up, and having trained the gun, he pressed his finger to the firing key, springing back directly afterward to avoid the recoil. But to his astonishment there was no report: the weapon did not discharge. He therefore set and pressed the key again, but once more there was no result. It was evidently a miss-fire. The young man knew, of course, that sometimes a cartridge will "hang fire", and that many a gun's crew have been blown to pieces by prematurely opening the breech, but he forgot all about that now in his anxiety, and unscrewed and opened the breech-piece immediately. Nothing happened. There were the marks of the percussion-pin upon the primer of the cartridge, but the ammunition had failed to explode.
Hastily calling for another cartridge, he withdrew the faulty one and thrust in a fresh one, closing the breech and repeating his first operation; but again the cartridge failed to explode. Something was seriously wrong somewhere--but what? Was it the powder that was faulty or damp, or the primer that was ineffective? It was impossible to say without examination. Another cartridge and still another were tried, and every time the result was the same, until Frobisher began to feel seriously alarmed.
Encouraged by the cessation of fire from the Su-chen, the junks had redoubled their own, and the gunboat was rapidly becoming as riddled as a sieve, while men were falling fast in every direction. The ship's funnel was as full of holes as a cullender, the shrouds of the foremast were cut to pieces on both sides, the mainmast had long since been shot away, and the wooden deck-houses were mere heaps of splintered wood, while the bulwarks were in a perfectly ruinous condition. Clearly something must be done, and done quickly, or the Su-chen would be sunk beneath their feet.
Ordering his men to leave the four-inch for the time being, and to blaze away with the smaller pieces and machine-guns, Frobisher ran below to the magazine to try to discover what was wrong. He found the men there passing out shell and cartridge quite calmly, unaware that there was anything wrong on deck, and of course taking no precaution to examine the stuff before sending it up the hoist.
Frobisher's first action when he got to the magazine was to examine the outside of the brass cases, and he soon saw--or thought he saw--what was the matter. When the Su-chen's ammunition had been overhauled at Tien-tsin, cartridge for the four-inch was one of the sizes of which there was a shortage, and Frobisher had had a fresh supply put on board. That fresh supply, he had observed at the time, was stencilled with Chinese characters in red paint, while the old stock had been stencilled in black; and he now observed that all the cartridge being passed up carried the black stencil, and was therefore old stuff--how old he did not care to think. He at once told the men by signs not to send up any more black-marked cartridge, but to use only the red-marked; and then, for the second time that day, he received a shock.
The four-inch gun had been fired more frequently than any other gun, and the whole of the fresh supply of cartridge of that size had been exhausted. There was not a single charge left! How bitterly he blamed himself for not having hove every scrap of the ship's old ammunition overboard, and filled up entirely with new! But it was no time for regrets now; the only thing to do was to rectify matters, if possible; and if not, to make the best of them. Perhaps it might be the primers that were faulty, he thought, and if so, the situation might yet be saved, for there was a supply of new primers on board.
Seizing one of the cases in his arms, he rushed on deck with his load, and there, under cover of one of the casemates, drew the load, exercising the utmost care, that the powder might not be exposed to any flying sparks. Then, springing to the gun, he thrust in the empty case, slammed the breech shut, and pressed the key.
There was a loud, smacking report, and a little thread of smoke curled up from the muzzle of the gun. The primers, then, were in good order, so--good heavens!--it must be the powder that was wrong, and Frobisher felt the beads of sweat gather on his forehead. He would make quite sure, though.
Running back to the casemate, he snatched a handful of powder, spread it thinly on deck, well away from the load, and placed a lighted match to it. There was no flame or puff of smoke, no explosion--nothing! The match simply burnt up and went out. Then the Su-chen's captain took a pinch of the stuff between his fingers and put it in his mouth, tasting it. A moment later he spat it out on deck with a cry of horror and amazement, for what had passed for powder in all those old cartridges was nothing but granulated charcoal! Then Frobisher recollected Wong-lih's accusation of peculation on the part of mandarins and other high officials who filled their pockets at the expense of their country, and how the admiral had said that it would be a bad thing for China if she had to go to war under conditions such as then obtained.
This, then, was one of the results of such peculation. Some contractor or official had been paid to provide powder, and he had provided charcoal, pocketing the difference.
Frobisher ground his teeth and muttered several very bitter things. Here he was, engaged with a vastly superior force, handicapped most horribly for want of ammunition--for possibly the rest of the supply, intended for the smaller guns, was in the same condition. What would have happened if he had not had the forethought to examine superficially the contents of the magazine at Tien-tsin, and order a fresh supply on his own responsibility, he hardly dared to think. There would undoubtedly have been not a single cartridge capable of being discharged, and the Su-chen and her crew would by this time undoubtedly have been the prize of the pirates. And all this that some pampered mandarin or contractor might have a supply of unearned money wherewith to buy luxuries that he neither deserved nor needed. It was disgraceful!
But there was nothing to be gained by repining, he reminded himself. Fortunately the cartridge for the smaller guns seemed to be holding out satisfactorily; and while Frobisher had been investigating the matter of the larger cartridge his men had made so good practice with them and their rifles that the third junk was already in a sinking condition. Even as he looked she disappeared like her consorts to the bottom, in a swirl of broken water, dotted with the forms of struggling pirates.
The one big gun being now useless, and the Su-chen herself in a very parlous condition, it was obviously out of the question to think of attempting to conclude the fight by means of the light guns and small-arms alone; the ship would not float long enough for that. Some other plan of action must therefore be adopted, and Frobisher gave his attention to the idea for a few minutes. Then he resolved upon a scheme which, though extremely hazardous, seemed to offer the best, if not the only, hope of success. It was a case of either destroying the pirates or being destroyed himself together with his crew; and of the two he naturally preferred that the sufferers should be the pirates. To explain his intentions it would be necessary, however, to call in the assistance of the interpreter, otherwise he could never hope to make the men comprehend exactly what was required--and his every hope of success hinged upon this.
He therefore went in search of Quen-lung, whom he eventually found, after a prolonged hunt, hiding, in an almost fainting condition, underneath the bunk in the first lieutenant's cabin, and dragged him forcibly on deck. He was obliged to give the terrified man a stiff dose of raki to bring him to a condition to understand what was being said to him; then, the fellow finally coming in some degree to his senses, Frobisher explained to him the plan of campaign, and ordered him to translate it to the men.
There being now but two junks left, it was the Englishman's intention to run the Su-chen up stream and in between them, firing as she went. Then boarding parties, headed respectively by himself and the first lieutenant, were to leap on to the decks of the junks, drive the crews overboard--not below--cut the cables, fire the vessels, and send them adrift down stream with the current. The Su-chen would then be free to turn her entire attention to the fort. She would anchor in the berth vacated by the junks, and endeavour to silence the fire of the fort with her remaining guns. If this could be done, a landing-party was to be thrown ashore who would carry with them a number of powder-bags for blowing in the gates; after which the idea was to enter the fort and carry it by storm. If the guns could not be entirely silenced, then as much damage as possible was to be done, and the assault was to be attempted in any case.
The men signified their comprehension of the plan with a cheer; then rifles were loaded, bayonets fixed, cartridge-pouches refilled, and cutlasses brought up from below and belted on. Frobisher gave the word, and the Su-chen went ahead at full speed for the junks. The men on the latter at once understood the move, and did their utmost to prevent it coming off, but all to no purpose. The gunboat crashed in between them, grapnels were hove aboard each junk, and the two parties of boarders, with Frobisher and the lieutenant at their head, scrambled up on the decks of the junks, where a desperate hand-to-hand struggle at once commenced.
The pirates, knowing that they could expect no mercy, showed none, and no quarter was given on either side. Frobisher, at the head of his men, strove to cut his way forward, driving the pirates ahead of him and overboard; but he soon realised that this was going to be an exceedingly difficult task. The desperadoes were splendidly armed, and seemed not to know the meaning of the word fear. Men found revolvers flashing in their very faces, and spoke no more in this world; the air scintillated with the gleam of whirling steel and vibrated with the hoarse shouts of the combatants and the cries of wounded men; while, to add to the horror and confusion of the scene, the guns of the fort opened fire murderously upon friend and foe alike.
Twice the pirates had given way slightly, but each time they had recovered their ground, and however many of them were killed, others seemed to appear from nowhere to take their places; and so the fight raged with unabated fury. Frobisher picked out a man who appeared to be one of the chiefs, and made herculean efforts to reach him; but time and again a whirlwind of men swept in between him and his prey, so that the fellow seemed unapproachable.
Then, suddenly, there arose a roar of exultation from the pirates, and, turning, Frobisher saw the other boarding party give way, and, seemingly struck with panic, go tumbling back on board the Su-chen, defeated. Frobisher, forgetting that he would not be understood, shouted to his men to redouble their efforts, and to those on the gunboat to go back and try again.
But there was worse to come. The Englishman was at the head of his men, plying his cutlass with terrible effect, when he felt a slight jar, and looked round just in time to see a man on board the Su-chen throw off the last grapnel, and the gunboat begin to gather sternway down the stream. He uttered a shout of rage, and strove to hew his way to the side of the junk; but even as he did so, he realised that he was too late. There were already fathoms of water between junk and steamer, and the bitter conclusion was forced home upon him that he had been deserted by his crew, and left alone with a mere handful of men in the midst of a crowd of howling, murderous pirates. The end of all things for him seemed very close at that moment.


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