Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command Two

The next thing of which Frobisher became aware was that he was in an extremely uncomfortable position, and that he was suffering a very considerable amount of pain. It also appeared to him that he was experiencing an altogether unpleasant degree of warmth; while he seemed to hear, ringing in his ears like the echo of something listened to ages ago, the sound of what very strongly resembled a steamer's syren. Added to this, he was conscious that there were many people quite close to him, groaning in varying degrees of agony; and finally, as his faculties resumed their normal condition, he began to realise that he was in a very disagreeable predicament.
Refraining from opening his eyes, he waited patiently until the feeling of sickness and dizziness with which he was oppressed had slightly worn off, striving meanwhile to remember how it came about that he was wounded in the head, and firmly lashed, with his arms behind him, to the trunk of a tree, in unpleasant proximity to a large fire. Little by little his memory returned, and he remembered clearly everything that had taken place, up to the time when the enclosure had been rushed by the Formosan savages, and he himself had fallen unconscious from the blow of a spear haft across his head. What, he wondered, had become of poor Drake? He had not set eyes on him during the whole of that brief scuffle, and he began to fear the worst for his friend.
A remarkable sight revealed itself to his wondering gaze when he at length opened his eyes. Instead of being bound to the trunk of a tree, as he had previously supposed, he found that he was secured to a stout post driven into the ground, his arms, behind him, encircling the post, with the wrists lashed together by what felt like rough ropes of native fibre. Glancing downward, he saw that his ankles had been placed one on each side of the stake, and secured there by several lengths of rattan; and it was to this that his uncomfortable and cramped position was due, as his whole weight was thus thrust forward until it was supported almost entirely by the wrists.
Looking round him, he saw that a number of similar stakes had been erected in the form of a circle, in the centre of which was a roaring fire, the heat from which he had become unpleasantly aware of on his return to consciousness; and to each post was secured the body of a man, supported in the same manner as himself. Many of them appeared, Frobisher noticed, to be in a state of entire, or nearly entire, unconsciousness. These men were, of course, the Chinese seamen who had escaped death at the first onslaught of the savages, and had survived, he very greatly feared, only to meet a far more sinister fate than that of sudden death.
His gaze diligently searched the circle for Drake, and he was beginning to fear that his old friend must be numbered with the slain, when one of the figures raised its head slowly and painfully, as though just returning to consciousness, and revealed the blood-stained, haggard features of the first lieutenant. At the same time Drake turned his eyes in Frobisher's direction, stared blankly at him for a second, and then smiled a glad but painful smile--painful because of the slash which he had received across the face; but he refrained from calling a greeting, and Frobisher instantly recognised that the other must have some good reason for remaining silent--a circumstance very much opposed to his usual nature.
That reason soon became apparent as Frobisher managed to twist his head round, with considerable difficulty, and look behind him; for he then saw that he and the survivors of his crew were tied up in front of a native Formosan village; the spot where they were standing being evidently the open space which is to be found in some portion of every savage town. It was still night-time, but the glare of the great fire shone redly on the low, reed-thatched huts, with their two-foot-high doors, covered with fibre mats, through which the occupants were obliged to crawl on all-fours; and the reason of Drake's silence became apparent in the bronze shapes of several of the savages themselves, either lounging against the walls of the huts, or seated on low stools before the doors. All of them, without exception, were nursing evil-looking, long-hafted, broad-bladed spears, and carried, belted to their waists, long-bladed knives, with wavy blades, somewhat similar to the Malay parong, or kris; and these they were evidently very ready and willing to use on the least provocation.
The natives had all the appearance of people who were waiting impatiently for some pleasurable happening to take place; and Frobisher realised how very much it was to the advantage of all of them to feign unconsciousness as long as possible. The "exhibition", in which the prisoners were undoubtedly to become the principal actors, could hardly take place while the prisoners were still insensible, and therefore not in a fit condition to furnish "sport"; but there was no doubt that, directly any of them showed signs of being in a condition to feel pain, the savage revels would begin. What form these would take Frobisher did not, of course, know; but he could shrewdly guess, by what he remembered to have been told about these folk, that it would be something very horrible, and he shuddered involuntarily.
At this moment there thrilled through the still night air that same deep, throbbing note that he believed he had heard at the moment when he had been struck down. His sub-consciousness had then attributed the sound to the result of the blow, and he had since thought no more of it; but now that he heard it again he had no doubt as to what it really was. It was the deep-toned vibration of a steamer's syren, not so very far away; and he cast a quick glance in Drake's direction. If there were a steamer so close at hand, there might yet be a chance of being rescued if communication could possibly be established with her people.
The lieutenant had also heard it; and directly his chief's eyes met his, his lips slowly but very distinctly formed one silent word: "Japanese."
It was quite possible at that short distance, and in that strong light, to read from one another's lips, provided the motions were slow and very distinct, and the two men at once entered into a silent conversation relating to the situation in which they found themselves. Drake all the time kept a wary eye on the guards, and feigned unconsciousness--a course immediately followed by Frobisher--immediately there seemed the least likelihood of one of them turning his head in the prisoners' direction.
There could be no question as to the identity of the stranger--or strangers. The steamer undoubtedly was either one of the transports, or the gunboat sent by the Japanese to take possession of the island--part of the very expedition that Frobisher would now have been engaged in fighting, had it not been for the terrible catastrophe of the Chih' Yuen being cast away.
The questions then arose--how soon would it be before the troops were landed? would they be likely to come that way in their search for a spot on which to erect fort and barracks? and if they did so, would they arrive in time? They would scarcely begin the disembarkation before dawn, Frobisher conjectured; but dawn must surely be not very far off now. He found himself praying fervently that his Chinese seamen might remain insensible as long as possible; for the first that recovered his senses would be almost certain, in his astonishment and alarm, to betray the fact; and he could not but believe that when once the "entertainment" commenced, the savages would not trouble to discriminate between insensible and conscious victims, but would butcher the entire company to satisfy their lust for blood.
He had been carrying on a silent conversation with Drake for nearly an hour, during which time neither prisoners nor captors had moved; and the first streaks of dawn were appearing to the eastward when the lieutenant suddenly dropped his chin on his chest, as though shot; and so naturally was the performance carried out that for a few seconds Frobisher believed his friend had fainted. He was wise enough, however, to follow the example instantly, and presently, through his half-closed eyelids, he saw a couple of the savages rise to their feet and stroll toward the circle of prisoners.
Drake himself was one of the first at whom they stopped. They looked keenly at the down-hung head, and even prodded him in the ribs with a spear-haft; but although the blow must have been exceedingly painful, Drake retained sufficient self-possession not to utter a sound or exhibit a single sign of consciousness, and after a pause the two men strolled along to the next prisoner. This was the Chinese quartermaster of the Chih' Yuen; and directly they touched him Frobisher realised that the man was dead--fortunately, perhaps. There could be no mistaking the inert manner in which the body responded to the shaking of the taller of the two Formosans; and with an animal cry of disappointed rage the fellow reversed his spear and drove the broad blade again and again into the insensate figure. The sight was a sickening one, and Frobisher's only consolation was that the object of the barbarity was beyond the reach of cruelty for ever.
Then the men passed on to another figure, another, and still another, always without result, until Frobisher became aware that his turn was coming next. Drake's eye was on him, he knew, watching anxiously, and he braced himself to bear in silence whatever barbarity the savages might feel inclined to inflict.
He knew, of course, when they stopped opposite him, although he had now closed his eyes tightly; but he could scarcely repress a start when he felt a heavy hand fall upon his shoulder, for he did not know what next to expect. The temptation to open his eyes was almost irresistible, but with a strong effort he managed to keep them closed, and it was indeed well for him that he did so. Drake, who was watching, told him afterward that when he saw the horribly suggestive gestures that followed upon the man placing his hand on Frobisher's shoulder he almost fainted from very horror, and was scarcely able to draw his breath until, after a few seconds' hesitation, the men decided to postpone their barbarous idea until the victim was in a state to anticipate and to feel, and passed on. Frobisher heard them depart, but forbore to open his eyes for a few seconds, lest they should be playing him some trick, and so he did not see what happened to the man on his left; but Drake did, and not with all his iron nerve could he repress a muffled cry of horror.
Immediately the men wheeled, but luckily, having their backs turned at the time, were unable to locate the sound accurately. They fancied that it was uttered by one of the seamen who, unhappily for him, had just regained consciousness and was gazing about him in blank amazement and terror; and with a shout of exultation the two inhuman wretches left the cruelly mangled form of their victim and passed on to the sailor.
They paused in front of him for a few moments, gesticulating and laughing fiendishly, and then, to Frobisher's amazement, left him untouched, and returned to the huts.
Here they uttered a peculiar kind of cry, and presently could be heard sounds as of a number of people approaching through the jungle. A few others appeared sleepily at the doors of some of the huts, and crawled out, yawning and blinking, into the fire-light. Here they remained, talking in their harsh, unmusical tongue, and chuckling at some suggestion put forward by the tall man, until the arrival of a party of men, all armed with spears and krises and, in some instances, bows and arrows, or blowpipes, who had evidently been out hunting to procure breakfast for the tribe; for they carried with them a number of small animals somewhat resembling hares, and a few splendidly-plumaged birds, all intended for the pot. On hearing what the tall man was saying, however, their burdens were contemptuously cast on one side, and they eyed the prisoners with an expression that told Frobisher more plainly than words that he had fallen into the clutches of cannibals, and the discarding of the spoils of their night's hunt proved only too clearly what their intentions were.
How Frobisher prayed and prayed again that the Japanese troops might pass that way in time! It would, of course, mean the exchanging of one prison for another, he knew. But the Japanese were civilised, and their officers gentlemen; and no indignity or other hardship would be inflicted upon their captives beyond temporary confinement; and the Englishman felt that he would almost be willing to undergo lifelong captivity if he might, by so doing, save his comrades and himself from the dreadful fate that, only too plainly, was in store for them.
The chief having now concluded his harangue, his audience, with shouts and chuckles of anticipation and ferocity, dived back into their huts, to reappear a few seconds later with a number of wooden shovels, and stakes sharpened to a point and hardened in the fire, these being evidently intended for the breaking up of hard earth for the shovels to deal with more easily. Then the whole of them, with the exception of a couple of spearmen left to guard the prisoners, trooped off into the bush, stopping a little distance away and proceeding to dig eagerly, as Frobisher could tell by their shouts, and the sounds of shovels and picks being driven into the ground.
Ah, if only it were possible for either Drake or himself to loosen their bonds while the savages were away! A few seconds would suffice to dispose of the guard; a few seconds more would liberate the rest of the prisoners, most of whom were now showing signs of returning consciousness; and they could all be away in the depths of the forest before those others could reach the spot. Once free, it would be strange indeed if they could not reach the protection of the Japanese troops, who would by this time surely be disembarking, possibly only a short mile away, if they should have elected to land at the spot where the Chih' Yuen's boats had been left.
"Phew!--the boats!" thought Frobisher to himself. If the troops should land where he expected they would, the officers could not avoid seeing them; and, seeing them, they would naturally at once endeavour to discover whose they were. The name of the ship was on each boat--if the Jap officers could understand Chinese characters--and surely, surely they would try to locate the people who had landed from the vessel, if only to attack and drive them from the island. If the disembarkation had begun at dawn, a strong force might even now be in the vicinity searching--perhaps within earshot. At this very moment a concentrated shout on the part of Drake and himself might reach the ears of the troops and bring them to the spot in time to save all hands from a horrible death!
But the risk was too great. A shout would inevitably bring back the savages, even if the guards did not punish the outcry with a spear-thrust; and then all would be over. No, the only thing to do was to wait, and pray fervently that the preparations of the Formosans might take them some considerable time, thus giving the Japanese more opportunity to find the prisoners before it was too late, if they were coming at all. It seemed strange to Frobisher that the savages had not also heard the steamer's syren; but he attributed the circumstance to the fact that perhaps his own ears and Drake's were more sensitive to such a sound, in the presence of imminent death, than those of the Formosans. Besides, he and the lieutenant knew that the arrival of the Japanese was expected, whereas the Formosans had no reason to suspect anything of the kind.
While he was debating the matter in his mind he heard the noise of the savages crashing through the bush on their return, and knew that, unless assistance came within the next five minutes, it would arrive too late for all of them.
Presently the cannibals reappeared in the clearing, laughing and joking among themselves; and, having thrown their shovels and picks down by the side of one of the huts, they picked up their spears and advanced expectantly toward the circle of bound men, baring their gums, showing their teeth, and exhibiting every symptom of pleased anticipation.
Then the tall chief, who had been the last to return, dived into his hut, while the others stood around, leaning on their spears or running their thumbs along the edges of their parongs, waiting impatiently for him to reappear.
It was at this moment that Frobisher, who was staring hard at Drake, trying to attract his attention, thought he caught the distant echo of a voice; and by the sudden start that the lieutenant was unable to repress it was evident that he, too, had become aware of something. He immediately glanced across at his captain, raising his eyebrows and nodding his head in the direction of the sound; and Frobisher nodded in return, at the same time glancing warningly at the Formosans, and forming the word "Wait" with his lips as distinctly as he could. Drake understood, and flashed his comprehension at the moment that the savage chief reappeared in the doorway of his hut.
He had dressed himself, in celebration of the occasion, in a splendid tiger-skin cloak, and wore the skull of a tiger on his head as a kind of helmet. A necklace made of the teeth and claws of that beast was suspended round his neck, supporting a huge unset emerald, which was fastened by a piece of gold wire run through a hole which had been drilled through an angle of the stone. He also wore a pair of white cotton trousers, terminating just below the calf, and kept in position by a belt made of silver medallions, connected by pieces of deer-hide; while from this belt depended a very handsome silver-hilted kris in a wooden scabbard, very richly ornamented, which had undoubtedly been stolen at some time from a rich Malay trader. Gold bracelets encircled his arms nearly from wrist to elbow, and his ankles were ornamented by soft gold bands which could be clasped on or taken off as their owner desired. He made a fine figure of a man, and was evidently quite aware of the fact, for he stood still for a few moments, sunning himself in the admiration of his followers, until Frobisher trembled lest the voices should again make themselves heard and be detected by the waiting cannibals. In fact, as he strained his ears, the Englishman could now distinctly hear the distant crackling of undergrowth, announcing the passage of a number of men through the bush. It was as yet very faint indeed, and would have passed unnoticed but for the strained condition of his nerves; but it was to him quite perceptible, and approaching closer and closer every second.
To his unbounded delight, the cannibals now formed a circle and began to sing, slowly parading round the doomed men and clashing the hafts of their spears, thus effectually drowning any sounds the approaching troops might make, and at the same time notifying their presence to the Japanese. It was broad daylight by this time, and Frobisher kept his eyes glued in the direction from which the sounds had proceeded, hoping every second that they would be gladdened by the glitter of approaching bayonets.
In the midst of the singing the chief, suddenly whipping out his kris, paused a few seconds on the edge of the circle, looking for a victim, then sprang like a tiger at one of the Chinese seamen. The man saw him coming and shrieked pitifully; but he could scarcely have felt his death, poor fellow, for the next second his severed head fell to the ground.
Waving the kris above his head, and laughing madly, the chief looked round for the next victim, and his eyes fell upon Frobisher. The Englishman breathed a prayer and prepared to meet his death bravely, keeping his eyes fixed undauntedly on the chief's face. And as he looked, the fellow suddenly dropped the streaming weapon and, falling upon his knees, collapsed in a heap, simultaneously with the crack of a revolver, which was immediately followed by a quick succession of rifle shots, as hidden marksmen picked out their victims.
Taken completely by surprise, the cannibals were shot down like sheep; and Frobisher scarcely realised what was happening until he saw the last savage throw up his hands and fall. Then he felt his bonds slacken, and he staggered weakly forward, to find himself supported by the arms of a Japanese officer, while, standing about in groups at the edge of the jungle, could be seen the figures of the soldiers, leaning upon their still-smoking rifles.

No comments: