Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command Three


Several months had passed since the moment when Frobisher stood staring in the face of death in the Formosan clearing, to be saved in the very nick of time by a well-directed shot from a Japanese officer's revolver. Now he, together with Drake and all that remained of the crew of the Chih' Yuen--twenty-three seamen only, out of her complement of over three hundred--were crawling slowly and carefully, on hands and knees, down a steep jungle path, not half a mile from the scene of the rescue, on their way to the beach. How they come to be in this position, creeping along and keeping cautiously within the shadow cast by the moon, can soon be told.

Immediately the cannibals had been slain by the Japanese volleys, and the officer and his men had cast loose the cramped and stiffened forms of the prisoners, the wounded Formosans--of whom there were very few-- had been executed by the orders of the Japanese captain, who said that he could not afford to take any savage prisoners. But he courteously informed Frobisher that, although he was delighted and honoured at having been the means of succouring the "honourable captain" and his men in their extremity, he would be obliged, as the two countries were still at war, to make him and all his men prisoners until such time as they could be exchanged. If, however, Frobisher would give his parole for himself and his crew, he would be very glad to give them all a passage to Japan when the transports returned thither; otherwise, he should be obliged to keep them with him on the island until he was relieved or the Japanese garrison withdrawn.

Frobisher and Drake, after consulting, decided that they would not give their parole. They were both eager to get away from Formosa and back to their duty as soon as possible, and they believed they might be able to form a plan by which to bring this about, if they were not sent to Japan.

He therefore informed General Oki of his decision. That officer shrugged his shoulders, and ordered the two Englishmen and the twenty-three Chinese to be closely guarded until a building could be erected as a prison for them. This was soon run up, and the twenty-five men placed therein, with sentries stationed at the doors night and day.

They were well treated, but very strictly guarded; and it was a long time before even a glimmering of an opportunity to escape occurred. The gunboat had convoyed the transports back to Nagasaki; and as escape was impossible without the assistance of a ship, it became necessary to wait until another returned, as she was expected to do, in about three months' time, with stores.

It was longer than that, however, before she appeared, and provisions were becoming exceedingly scarce when one day everybody awoke to find one of the latest and finest Japanese torpedo-boat destroyers lying off the beach, and with her an old tramp steamer laden with stores. It was then that Frobisher and Drake decided to attempt putting into execution the scheme matured by them months previously, and which had been simmering in their brains ever since the departure of the gunboat and transports.

This scheme was nothing less than the capture of the war-vessel which would certainly accompany the storeship; but the question now was, How was the scheme to be carried out with so small a number of men? Twenty-five to a hundred and ten--which would be about the complement carried by the destroyer--was very long odds; but Frobisher and Drake between them evolved a plan that they thought might meet with success.

They had observed--at the time when the Japanese were first landing their stores, after the troops had been disembarked--that the crews of transports and war-ship had been allowed to come ashore in detachments to stretch their legs after the voyage, being permitted also to go into the woods at the back of the cliffs with rifles, after tigers and other game, provided always that they went in large parties, so as to avoid any danger of being cut off by the cannibals. They had also made a note of the fact that, when the gunboat's crew had taken their turn at shore leave, fully three-quarters of the men had arranged to do so at the same time, so that a battue on a large scale might take place, leaving only a few men behind to look after the ship. This battue had proved such a tremendous success that the crews of the two transports had followed the example of their Service comrades, and had likewise had excellent sport.

The reports of these successes, Frobisher felt sure, would be communicated to the crews of the ships which were to bring the next consignment of stores; and it was upon the possibility of the major portion of the destroyer's men coming ashore together, leaving the ship very indifferently manned, that the Englishmen had built their plan. If the Japanese did not follow their predecessors' example, then another plan would have to be thought out after the ship's arrival, when it could be seen what arrangements were actually in force.

But, fortunately for the success of Frobisher's scheme, everything had fallen out as he had hoped. The storeship's crew came on shore first, and met with splendid success; and, as the destroyer and her consort were making but a brief stay, the war-ship's crew had arranged to hold their battue the following day. Frobisher had therefore warned his men, directly he became aware of what was intended; and it was with mingled feelings of delight and apprehension that he saw and heard the laughing Japanese tars making their way into the bush, as twilight fell, to take up their posts for the moonlight "shoot."

The prison had been built at some distance from the storehouse and the barracks, close to the edge of the jungle, and not far from the strip of beach where the Chih' Yuen's boats had landed. The other two buildings just referred to were more than half a mile away, at the top of the cliff, where a signal-station had also been established. On the night selected for the attempt, the crew of the store-ship happened to be holding a "sing-song", to which the officers on shore and a number of men from the barracks had been invited; and it seemed as though fortune herself were on the side of the conspirators.

Frobisher gave the hunters half an hour in which to make a good "offing", as he phrased it, and then, when the shades of evening had well set in, passed the word to his men to be ready.

There were two sentinels on guard, night and day, over the prisoners, and these had been changed half an hour before the time the attempt was to be made. Frobisher could hear them pacing slowly up and down outside; and he whispered to one of the sailors, who could speak Japanese, that the moment had arrived.

The fellow immediately shouted, at the top of his voice:

"Help! help! I have been bitten by a snake!" and, acting on Frobisher's instructions, the remainder of the men began to raise a tremendous hubbub, as though trying to find the reptile to kill it, while the "bitten" man, altering the tones of his voice, called wildly to the sentries to bring their rifles to shoot the thing.

The plan worked to perfection. The prisoners had always been quiet and well-behaved, and had never made any attempt to escape, so no suspicions now suggested themselves to the guards. They hastily unlocked the doors and dashed in, with rifles held ready to shoot--and the next moment they were on the floor, with half a dozen men on the top of each of them, and their rifles in the hands of Frobisher and Drake respectively.

They were bound and gagged in less time than it takes to tell; and five minutes later the little band were in the situation in which they were discovered at the beginning of this chapter, crawling cautiously along the jungle path toward the beach.

Once there, in the shadow of the cliffs, they hastened to the spot where the arms and stores from the Chih' Yuen had been concealed when they first landed, some of which had been left there when they went to build the fort. If the Japanese had not discovered them, they should be there still; and there they were soon found.

Frobisher distributed a rifle and cutlass to each man, saw that the rifles were loaded and that the remaining cartridges were distributed as far as they would go, then gave Drake a cutlass and revolver, and took one of each himself. Then the little band crept quietly along toward the place where the Japanese boats had been pulled up.

Nothing of this kind having been anticipated, it had not been deemed necessary to leave a guard over the boats, and the fugitives had things all their own way. Oars were muffled with pieces of the men's clothing, and the boat was carried bodily down to the water's edge and placed carefully in the water to avoid the noise created by running her down the beach. There might be sentries on the destroyer and the store-ship ; but if anyone should be watching on the destroyer Frobisher hoped that his crew would be taken for a party of the hunters, returned early for some reason, until it would be too late to offer resistance. If there were no sentinels on guard--well, attention to the fugitives would not be attracted by any undue disturbance.

Quietly but quickly the men slid into the boat, and were soon on their way toward the destroyer, lying about half a mile from the store-ship. They were within a few yards of her when, to their astonishment and momentary dismay, they were challenged--there was a sentry on watch, after all!

The Japanese-speaking seaman replied to the challenge with a statement that they had "returned early, as the sport had turned out to be poor"; and before the sentry could make up his mind whether or not he recognised the voice, the boat's crew were on deck, and he had no opportunity to rectify his mistake. He was silently overcome, gagged, and bound in a trice, and in less than ten minutes the remainder of the destroyer's men--most of them captured while enjoying a well-earned nap--were in irons and confined, with a sentry over them, in their own vessel's forecastle, the scuttles of which were closed and screwed home with a spanner, so that no outcry of theirs could reach the other ship.

The fires were banked and the steam pressure was low, but by an extravagant use of oil a working pressure was soon raised. Frobisher wisely waited until he had a full head of steam before slipping his cable, lest he might be chased by the store-ship before he had power for full speed; but at the expiration of an hour all was in readiness. The word was given, the cable slipped through the hawse-pipe with a roar, the screw revolved, and the Satsuma swung round in a circle and headed northward for Wei-hai-wei.

The sound of the cable running out alarmed the crew of the store-ship, and the concert ceased abruptly. But that craft might as well have hoped to catch a streak of lightning as the Satsuma, when once she was well into her stride; and two days later the destroyer, now flying the Chinese flag, steamed proudly into Wei-hai-wei.

But, alas! pride soon had a fall, for the harbour was full of Japanese war-ships! Matters had been progressing while Frobisher was a prisoner in Formosa, battles had been fought on land and sea, and China had been humbled in the dust. Her men, both in the Navy and the Army, had fought like heroes; but, alas! it was always the same tale. Victory, dearly bought, but still victory, would have been theirs in nearly every case but for the peculation of the mandarins and other high officials, who supplied everything of the poorest to the unfortunate men whose duty it was to do the fighting. Poor weapons, poor food, cheap boots and clothing, faulty ammunition were the cause of China's downfall--nothing else.

The remnant of her fleet, under Admiral Ting, had fought another bravely-contested naval action, and had been destroyed, with the exception of one ship, the Chen Yuen, which had been captured. Her southern fleet had been bottled up by another Japanese squadron, and Admiral Wong-lih had gone to Tien-tsin to see whether he could be of use there. The army in Korea had been crushed by an enemy superior in numbers and in everything else but bravery; and at the moment of Frobisher's return the peace envoys were in the act of concluding the treaty of Shimonoseki.

The higher Chinese naval officers, broken-hearted at disgrace which was none of their own fault, had one and all committed suicide, and the Dragon's teeth were drawn, his claws pared.

Would he ever rise again, Frobisher wondered, under men worthy of the heroes who were only too willing to fight his battles? Time alone would show.

There is little more to add to the present history of Captain Murray Frobisher.

The captured destroyer was, of course, claimed by Japan, and Frobisher himself remained a prisoner for one day, until the treaty was signed. Then, being free, he sought Admiral Wong-lih, who had refused to follow his comrades' example and destroy himself. The Englishman obtained from him the loan of an old gunboat, armed and manned her at his own expense, went up the Hoang-ho, and settled an outstanding account with certain pirates and an individual by the name of Ah-fu.

Then Drake and he revisited the ruined palace, and brought away Genghiz Khan's hoard, which the two men shared and brought to England, where they arrived about Christmas time.

Frobisher was now an immensely wealthy man, and a famous one, too, for he found that the account of his services with the Chinese Navy had reached home, and that his name was in everybody's mouth.

He was surprised, on the day following his arrival, to receive a visit from Dick Penryn, who, after the first warm greetings had passed, handed him a document intimating that the former sentence of the court martial had been reversed; that Frobisher had been reinstated in the British Navy, with the rank of captain; and that a ship was waiting for him as soon as he cared to take command.

He had, however, a little business of his own to transact first; and the nature of it became apparent, a little more than a year later, when Captain Murray Frobisher, of Her Majesty's cruiser Dauntless, presented to a grateful and astonished country no less than four splendid battleships of the latest design, built in the mother country with part of the proceeds of his share of the hoard of the ancient "Conqueror of Asia". He did not intend, he said to the deputation who waited upon him to thank him, that his country should ever be exposed to the danger of the fate that had overtaken China. If China had had more ships she might have come off victorious in her war with Japan, in spite of the manifold disadvantages to which she had been subjected. These were disadvantages of a kind to which Great Britain, he knew, would never be exposed; but he wanted his beloved country to possess a good "margin of safety."

After this generous and unparalleled gift, will it surprise readers very much to learn that the lieutenant who was once cashiered from the Navy for losing his ship is now Captain Sir Murray Frobisher, Baronet, holding the rank of post-captain on board one of the battleships which he himself presented to his country?

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