Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command Up-country

No sooner had the anchor splashed into the water than Captain Drake gave the order for the ship's lanterns to be lighted, and some of them slung in the rigging, while others were to be placed at intervals along the bulwarks. Blocks and tackles were then made fast to the end of the fore and main booms, the booms were triced up at an angle to serve as derricks, and the hatch-covers were stripped off.
It was to be a case of all hands working all night to get the cargo ashore; for now that the ship had arrived in Korean waters--and consequently in the zone of danger--Drake was all eagerness to get his contract completed, to collect his payments, and to clear off out of harm's way, with his steamer still in his own hands. For she was his own property, and to lose her would mean ruin for her owner.
Arrangements had long since been made between Drake and Frobisher as to the method of procedure upon arrival at their destination, and the mere fact that at the last moment the point of disembarkation of the cargo had been changed to Sam-riek made no difference in the plans.
It had been agreed between Drake and the official negotiating for the rebels that the latter should not put in an appearance at the point of debarkation, because of the possibility that things might at the critical moment go wrong, but that the Englishman should land the arms in his own boats, and convey them up-country at his own risk, to a place which, it now transpired, was called Yong-wol, in the department of Kang-won, and situated on the river Han. Here they were to be handed over to the rebel representative and his escort; after which they could be conveyed by water to the environs of Seoul itself, where, in all probability, they would in the first instance be used. This arrangement would necessitate a journey across the entire peninsula of Korea; but to land the arms on the west coast, where the Government troops were mostly posted, would have been simply courting disaster. On the east coast there were only a few scattered outposts of troops; the inhabitants were hand-in-glove with the rebels--although none of them had as yet actually implicated themselves; and the inhabitants of Sam-riek, in particular, could be relied upon not to offer any opposition to the landing, or to inform the Government authorities of what was in the wind.
When, therefore, about nine o'clock that night--at which time the decks were packed with cases that had been got up from below in readiness to be sent ashore in the boats--there came from the look-out whom Drake, as a precautionary measure, had posted in the foretop a hail of "Ho! boat ahoy! What do you want?" every man on deck jumped as though he had been shot, so little was any interruption of any sort expected.
Drake and Frobisher darted to the side together, as though moved by the same impulse, and leant over the bulwarks, peering into the darkness and listening intently for any sound of oars that should enable them to discover the whereabouts of the approaching craft.
Whoever the occupant of the boat might be, he was evidently neither an enemy nor a spy; for hardly had the challenge left the seaman's mouth when the reply came out of the darkness, in a thin, high-pitched, timid voice: "All alightee; all alightee; it only me."
"And who the mischief may `only me' be?" growled Drake, who had been very considerably startled, and therefore felt rather annoyed with himself.
"Sh, sh! mastel," urged the voice; "you makee not so muchee shout; it vely dangelous. Thlow me lope, so I climb up; I got big piecee news for mastel." And the sound of muffled oars was again heard, this time evidently close to the ship.
"H'm!" muttered Drake under his breath to Frobisher; "I don't much like the look of this. It seems as though something had miscarried, for this fellow to come out here at this time of night, with a `big piecee news'. I suppose there is no doubt the beggar really has a message of some sort for us, so I'll have to let him come aboard. But if he tries any hanky-panky tricks, I'll send him over the side in double-quick time to feed the sharks. I can't afford to have this venture miss fire now. Jones, open the gangway, and throw a rope over the side," he added, turning to one of the seamen; "and stand by to hit, and hit hard, if everything is not exactly as it should be."
A rope was allowed to slide over the side through the open entry port; and a moment later it began to quiver as the occupant of the boat left his craft and proceeded to scramble up, hand over hand. Presently there appeared on deck a little, thin, wizened man, who might have been any age over sixty. He was clothed in nothing but a length of brown cotton material swathed round his body, and round the upper part of each leg, the end being drawn up between the thighs so as to form a kind of rough apology for a pair of knickerbockers. His lower limbs and feet were bare, and on his head he wore one of those high, broad-brimmed, conical hats that are so common among the Koreans.
"Well," exclaimed Drake sharply, as this peculiar-looking individual reached the deck and stood staring round him, "what the dickens d'ye want? Who are ye? What's your name?"
"My name Ling-Wong, mastel," replied the Korean, "and I come flom Excellency Kyong-Bah, at Yong-wol."
"Phew!" whistled Drake, turning to Frobisher. "Kyong-bah is the man I negotiated with about this cargo. What's in the wind, I wonder? Yes-- go on," he added to Ling impatiently. "What's your message?"
"Me wait, mastel, six, seven day," said Ling, "wait fol the smoke-junk, to tell you that the Govelnol at Seoul, he got know about evelything, and he sendee tloops catchee you, if he can. Excellency Kyong-Bah tell me say you he must havee those lifles, and think you get them safe thlough if you vely quick and caleful; but he tell me say you must hully, ol you be caught."
"And that's over a week ago!" groaned Drake. "What chance have we, think you, Mr Frobisher, of getting this cargo safely through now?"
"Oh!" exclaimed Frobisher cheerfully, seeing that Drake was inclined to take a dismal view of things; "if we can get 'em ashore uninterfered with, I'll engage to deliver them to Kyong-Bah, or whatever the johnny's name is, safely enough. Nil desperandum, you know, skipper--that's Latin for `You never know what you can do till you try'."
"Those Latin chaps certainly did know how to say a lot in a few words, didn't they, Mr Frobisher?" remarked Drake, a little more cheerfully. "But do you really think you can get through if we get the arms safely ashore?"
"Sure of it," answered Frobisher, with a good deal more confidence than he really felt. "I'll take this chap as a guide, collect sufficient carts and mules at Sam-riek to take the whole lot at one trip, and then get this man Ling to show me some bypath over the hills which the Government troops are not likely to take. I understood you to say that there is a good road from Yong-wol to Sam-riek; and, if I know anything of Orientals, the troops will take it. If, then, we take another route, you will have the pleasure of seeing those fellows sitting on their haunches in Sam-riek, waiting for you to unload your cargo into their lap, while I shall be travelling another way, under a heavy press of canvas, conveying the consignment on its way to its proper owners. Savvee?"
Drake brought his hand down on Frobisher's shoulder. "By the Great Horn Spoon, Mr Frobisher," he exclaimed, "I don't know what I should have done without you! That's a Hundred A1 plan; and if you can only get safely away before the troops appear, I'll engage so to arrange matters that they shall believe the cargo to be still in the ship. That'll keep 'em busy long enough to allow you to carry out your part without interference. Of course a lot'll depend upon the extent to which the people of Sam-riek dislike the Government. If they are really on the side of the rebels, they'll keep mum about the stuff being already ashore; but if there are any traitors among them, the first thing they'll do will be to curry favour by setting the troops after you, one-time."
"Yes, that's so," agreed Frobisher, stroking his chin. "Still, it's the only way out that I can see; and the sooner we get the cargo ashore and test the scheme for ourselves, the better, I think."
"Right!" answered Drake. "Come along, boys,"--to the listening crew--"you have heard what's been said, so you see we've got to hurry. Jones, take this fellow Ling down below, and lock him up somewhere until Mr Frobisher is ready for him--I'm not taking any risks this trip. Then, when you've done that, take a few of the hands and swing eery one of our boats over into the water. We have enough cases on deck now to begin taking some of them ashore."
Encouraged by the captain and Frobisher, both of whom worked as hard as, or harder than, any of the seamen, the men buckled-to again in earnest; and soon the chests and cases were leaping up out of the holds on to the decks, off the decks into the boats, and so ashore, at a very satisfactory rate of progress.
All night the work went swiftly and steadily on, and well into the following morning, with only a few minutes' break for meals. Frobisher went ashore early in the morning with one of the loads, taking Ling with him as interpreter, in order to make arrangements for the transport of the cargo, and also to try to discover if there were as yet any signs of the arrival of the troops.
The villagers proved only too glad of the chance to hire out their carts and animals; and after a lengthy ride along the Yong-wol road, on a horse which he had borrowed, Frobisher satisfied himself that, thus far at any rate, there was no sign of troops in the neighbourhood.
By the time he got back to the ship the last of the cases was just being placed on deck, and two more trips of the little fleet of the Quernmore's boats would see the whole of the cargo safely ashore. Frobisher therefore ran down to his cabin and, throwing off his uniform, dressed himself in a pair of khaki-coloured riding-breeches, which he had brought out with him from England, thick-soled brown boots, and good leather leggings. An old Norfolk jacket completed the outfit, so far as his outer garb was concerned. And when he had donned an old and somewhat battered, but still serviceable, topi helmet--a relic of more prosperous days--and had fastened round him a leather belt and bandolier combined, filled it with cartridges, and attached to it one of Penryn's revolvers in a leather holster, it would have been rather difficult to recognise in him the erstwhile smart and spruce Murray Frobisher. Rather he resembled a South African transport-rider in a state of disrepair, and of so truculent an appearance that he might have been expected to put to flight with ease, and singlehanded, a considerable detachment of Korean soldiery. He slipped the second revolver into one of the side pockets of his jacket, and an extra supply of cartridges into the other pocket, and then ran up on deck, ready to start on his perilous journey into the interior.
By the time he had said good-bye to the skipper, and had received his instructions with regard to the collection of the purchase-money and sundry other matters, the last of the cargo had been sent ashore; and Drake's own gig was waiting at the foot of the accommodation-ladder to take the young man to the landing-place.
As he was on the point of descending the side-ladder, Drake asked him to wait a moment, and ran down below; reappearing, a few seconds later, with a serviceable ship's cutlass in his hand, which he himself belted round Frobisher's waist.
"Revolvers are all very well in their way," remarked the little skipper; "but sometimes a man is too busy fighting to have time to reload, and then he is very glad to have a yard of good, stout steel in his fist. Take it along with you, Mr Frobisher. If there should happen to be a scrap, I feel sure you will find it mighty handy. Avoid a fight if you can, of course; but, as Charlie Dickens says in that play of his, Jim the Penman, `once in a fight so carry yourself that the enemy shall be sorry for himself.' Good-bye, my boy, and take care of yourself!"
With a laughing reply Frobisher clasped Drake's hand once more, and ran lightly down the ladder into the boat; and fifteen minutes later he found himself safely ashore. The boat pulled back to the ship, where the remainder of the small fleet were already being hoisted up to the davits; and he was alone in a strange land, charged with a dangerous mission, with no white man to share his burden, and with only one man, Ling, who had even a nodding acquaintance with the English language.
Escort there was none, in the usual sense of the word, for the drivers of the carts containing the arms and ammunition-chests, although armed with old-fashioned muzzle-loading muskets, out-of-date halberds, and, in some cases, bows and arrows, could not possibly be relied upon to put up any sort of a fight in the event of an encounter with the regular Korean soldiery. The only person beside himself who was armed with a modern weapon was the interpreter, Ling, who carried a fairly recent and reliable Marlin repeating rifle, holding eight cartridges; but this was all the ammunition he had, so that, if trouble arose, he could not be relied upon very far, either.
Having reached the village, Frobisher took Ling with him and went off to see that the carts were properly loaded, and the mule-drivers at their stations; and to his astonishment found that, in spite of the proverbial slackness of the Korean, everything was in readiness, and only his word was necessary to enable the caravan to start. During his previous visit to the shore he had done a little exploration, and had quite made up his mind which road to take in order to avoid the troops coming from Yong-wol--provided, of course, that they came by the direct route. So he did not waste any time, but, after a last look round, to see that everything was satisfactory, commanded Ling to set the caravan in motion, himself remaining behind until the last cart had left the village, in order to make sure that, at the last moment, none of the drivers should shirk the risks and try to desert.
There was no attempt of the kind, however. The Korean mule-drivers appeared absolutely apathetic and indifferent to any possible danger. They were being well paid for their trouble, and "sufficient unto the day" was evidently their motto. Satisfied, therefore, that there was nothing to fear in that respect, Frobisher mounted the elderly steed which he had managed to purchase at about ten times its proper value, and rode to the head of the column, where he found Ling, already fast asleep on the back of the mule which he had elected to ride.
So the long column was at last fairly started on its perilous hundred miles' journey into the interior of Korea--a journey which involved the negotiation of heavy, ill-made roads, the fording of deep, swift rivers and streams, and, most difficult of all, the passage of the range of lofty hills on the other side of which the town of Yong-wol, their destination, was situated.
For a long time, until, in fact, the caravan disappeared from view among the trees, Captain Drake watched it through his telescope; and, when finally the last cart disappeared in the forest, the man whom Frobisher had once called his "little pirate" was not ashamed to follow the example of his illustrious namesake of immortal memory. He went down to his cabin and remained there for some minutes, actually praying for the safe return of the man to whom he had grown to be very sincerely attached--our friend Murray Frobisher.
It was about three o'clock in the afternoon when the caravan got away from Sam-riek, and urge and command and even implore as he might, Frobisher was quite unable to get the expedition farther than ten miles from the coast before darkness fell and it became necessary to camp for the night. A suitable place for an encampment was eventually found, on an open, level strip of ground by the side of a considerable stream, about half a mile ahead, a distance which Frobisher was compelled to force the drivers to traverse almost at the muzzle of the pistol. He managed, however, to convince the dull-witted Koreans that another half-mile would not kill them; and about seven o'clock the party pulled up at the spot selected. A couple of the carts contained provisions, and on the top of these Frobisher had placed a bundle containing a tent and blankets for his personal use.
He pitched the tent, spread his blankets on the ground, and then, before allowing the men to prepare their supper, ordered that all the vehicles should be formed into a circle, with his own tent in the centre, the shafts of each being run in under the hind wheels of the one in front, so as to form a fairly effective barricade, which would at least prevent the camp being rushed without warning, should an attack be made by the enemy. He also took care that the mules were picketed within the enclosure so formed, so that they might not stray away or be stolen; and finally, he told off half a dozen of the best-armed and most resolute-looking men, under the command of Ling, to act as sentries in different watches during the first half of the night, resolving to keep watch himself during the second half--the period during which there was most likelihood of danger.
These arrangements having been made, Frobisher served out their rations to the men, partook of his own supper, and, leaving strict orders with Ling that he was to be called at midnight, went to his tent, rolled himself up in his blankets, laid his cutlass and revolvers beside him, and was soon asleep.
He did not know how long he had been sleeping when he suddenly awoke, with a sense of danger and oppression strong upon him. Like most men who pass their lives at sea, or in uncivilised parts of the world, he seemed to be possessed of a sixth sense which always gave him warning when there was peril at hand; and it was this sense which now brought him broad awake in an instant, with his ears straining to catch the least sound, and his eyes peering through the darkness to catch the first glimpse of an intruder.
Like a wise man, he refrained from making the slightest sound that might betray his whereabouts to a prowling assassin; but, slowly and very carefully, he disengaged his arms from the blankets and reached out for one of his revolvers. With this in his hand he felt much more comfortable, and fully prepared for eventualities.
Then, sitting up carefully, Frobisher again listened intently for some sound which might tell him the position of the danger, if any; but, strain his ears as he might, he could catch not the slightest suggestion of a warning. There was, however, a certain faint, peculiar odour in the tent, which he felt sure proceeded neither from the canvas nor from the blankets. Very faint indeed it was, and it would perhaps have been quite imperceptible to anybody with a less keen olfactory sense than Frobisher possessed; but it was there, all the same, and he felt that he would very much like to identify it and determine its origin. It was not unpleasant--indeed the suggestion was of a pleasant perfume, a perfume which he had often smelt before; but what that perfume was he could not for the life of him recall just at the moment.
One thing was certain, however, and that was that there had been no such odour in the tent when he went to sleep; and it must therefore have been brought in by somebody since then. Now, nobody but himself had any business there, unless it were Ling come to wake him. But Ling would, or should, have stood at the entrance and called him; or at the most, if calling had not aroused him, have come boldly in and shaken him.
There was no sound, however, in the tent, and therefore the intruder, if there were one, had no legitimate business there; and the more Frobisher thought about the matter, the more certain he became that all was not as it should be.
He therefore very slowly and very silently divested himself of his blankets, leaving them in a bundle on the ground, and, with the revolver still grasped tightly in his hand, started to crawl noiselessly toward the open flap of the tent, which he located by seeing the glimmer of stars shining through. At the same time he took care to keep close to the side of the tent walls, so as to avoid, if possible, colliding with his supposed unknown visitor.
The odour was much more pungent now, and Frobisher knew that in a few seconds he would recognise it for what it was. Surely, he thought, there was a suggestion of oiliness about it, and--then in a moment he knew. The strange perfume was that of sandalwood oil, and he instantly realised what the circumstance meant. There was a human being in the tent, somebody who had planned murder, or robbery, or both; and the man had oiled himself so that, if his intended victim happened to be awake and grappled with him, he would be able to twist himself loose and escape.
Frobisher was by no means easily flurried, but when he realised that he was alone in a dark tent with a desperate man seeking his life; that he was possibly within arm's-reach of the fellow at that moment; and that in another second he might feel a long, keen blade sliding in between his ribs, it was only with difficulty that he restrained himself from firing off all six chambers of his revolver into the darkness, in the hope that one of the bullets might find its billet.
And then, at the very moment when he felt that his nerves would bear the strain no longer, the spell was broken. Suddenly there came a long, hissing breath close beside him, and immediately afterward a terrific thud, as something--Frobisher could easily guess what--was driven with deadly force into the heap of blankets close beside him.
With a tremendous bound the young Englishman leaped forward, dropping his revolver as he did so, and grappled with the intruder; but the man had been prepared for any mishap by oiling his body, and twisted and squirmed like an eel. So slippery was his skin that Frobisher, with all his tremendous strength, recognised that he could not hold him. He therefore gripped the fellow's wrist as firmly as he could with his left hand, and drew back his clenched right fist for a knock-out blow. But before he could deliver it he received a fearful kick in the stomach from one of the man's feet--which luckily were bare, or he would have been killed--and he doubled up like a jack-knife, involuntarily loosening his grip on the other's wrist. In an instant the man had gained the door of the tent, and was lost in the darkness, while poor Frobisher lay upon the ground gasping.
It was fully ten minutes before he had so far recovered as to be able to stand upright; but as soon as his strength returned he struck a match and lighted a lantern. By its light he examined the pile of blankets which had formed his bed, and, as he expected, found them pinned to the ground by a long, wavy-bladed knife, very similar in appearance to a Malay kris, which had been driven into the earth up to the very hilt by a blow that would assuredly have killed him, had he continued to slumber for another five minutes.
Frobisher drew out the knife, and tried to remember whether he had ever seen it before--whether he had observed it in the possession of any of the men composing the caravan; but he could not remember having seen a knife of the kind in the hands of any of the drivers. He therefore threw it aside, and cautiously opened the flap of the tent to see whether there was any mischief going on outside. But all was silent, and he could see some of the shadowy forms of the men on guard.
It was then half-past eleven, as he found by looking at his watch, and too late to go to sleep again, even if he felt inclined.
Precisely half an hour later a figure appeared at the door of the tent, and a voice observed quietly: "Time to wake up, mastel. You tellee me wake you one piecee time twelluf. Twelluf now, and me welly sleepy."
It was Ling.

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