A Chinese Command, A Story of Adventure in Eastern Seas, by Harry Collingwood.
We have two confessions to make before we tell you about the story. The first is to say that there are two missing pages from the copy of the book we used, 223 and 224, the last two pages of chapter 14, rather an exciting moment in the story. We shall try to get photocopies of these pages, but it will take time.
The second one will make you laugh: The Chinese Admiral Wong-Li, who plays a big part in the book, was always being read by the audiobook program as "wong fifty one". No doubt you can see why. So I changed his name, with apologies, to Wong-lih, thus restoring the correct pronunciation, and not making a huge difference to the story.
Frobisher is a cashiered Royal Navy ex-officer. He is approached to run some arms to the rebels in Korea, and thus make his fortune. This fails, and the arms get into the hands of the legitimate government. After some vicissitudes he finds himself in China, and talking to the above admiral, who offers him the command of a battleship, with the prospect of taking part in a war against Japan. He does this but loses his ship in a storm towards the end of the book. Meanwhile he has found the lost millions hidden away by Genghiz Khan many centuries beforehand. He has no hesitation in purloining these, and eventually on getting back to England, buying his way back into grace by presenting the nation with a number of brand-new battleships, for which bit of sleaze he is given a baronetcy, and restored to the Navy List.
It makes a good audiobook. NH.
A CHINESE COMMAND, A STORY OF ADVENTURE IN EASTERN SEAS, BY HARRY COLLINGWOOD.
A furious gust of wind tore down the chimney, blowing the smoke out into the small but cosily-furnished sitting-room of the little cottage at Kingston-on-Thames, and sending a shower of sparks hissing and spluttering on to the hearth-rug, where they were promptly trodden out by a tall, fair-haired young giant, who lazily removed his feet from a chair on which they reposed, for the purpose.
This operation concluded, he replaced his feet on the chair with deliberation, re-arranged a cushion behind his head, leaned back luxuriously, and started hunting in his pocket for matches wherewith to light his pipe, which had gone out.
"Beastly night for a dog to be out, much more a human being," he soliloquised. "Poor old Murray's sure to be drenched when he gets back, as well as frozen to the bone. Let's see—is everything ready for him? Yes, there are his slippers warming before the fire—hope none of those sparks burnt a hole in 'em—likewise dry coat, shirt, and trousers; that ought to do him all right. I hope to goodness the poor old chap's got some encouragement to-day, if nothing else, for he's fearfully down on his luck, and no mistake. And, between me and those fire-irons there, I'm getting almost afraid to let him out of my sight, for fear he'll go and do something foolish—though, to be sure, he's hardly that kind of fellow, when one comes to think of it. However, he should be in very soon now, and then I, shall learn the news."
Having delivered himself of this monologue, Dick Penryn lit his pipe, took up the book he had been reading, and was soon deep in the pages of Theophile Gautier's Voyage en l'Orient.
Dick Penryn and Murray Frobisher, the friend to whom he had been alluding, were chums of many years' standing. They had been born within a few months of one another—Frobisher being slightly the elder—in the same Devon village; had attended the same school in Plymouth—Mannamead House, to be exact; had gone to the same college together, and had passed into the British Navy within a year of one another—Frobisher being again first in the race.
Then, for some years, fortune smiled upon both. Each won golden opinions from his superiors; and by the time that the lads were twenty-three years of age they had attained the rank of lieutenant, and showed signs of rising rapidly in the service.
Everything was going splendidly, and both Dick and Murray were enjoying temporary rank as commanders of torpedo-boats during the winter manoeuvres of 1891-92, when suddenly, without any warning, Fate turned her face away from one of the chums and plunged him from the pinnacle of light-hearted happiness to the depths of misery and despair.
One evening, while a portion of the defending fleet was lying in Portland Roads waiting to be joined by the other division, news was brought in by one of the scouting destroyers that the attacking fleet had been seen at the entrance to the Channel, steering a course which undoubtedly had Portland as its objective. If that naval base was to be "saved", it was urgently necessary to send eastward in haste to Portsmouth, to bring up the other half of the defending squadron; otherwise the attackers would have things all their own way, and the south-west coast of England would lie at the mercy of the "enemy."
The destroyer Spitfire, which had just brought the news, would naturally have been selected to carry the message under ordinary circumstances—one of the rules of the game being that the telegraph might not be used by either side; but unfortunately, while still a considerable distance from Portland, she had commenced to run short of coal, being obliged to steam at half-speed for a number of hours, and finally arrived in the harbour on the sweepings of her bunkers. Hence there was greater need for haste than ever; and, as it would have taken longer to re-bunker the Spitfire than for T.B. 42, Murray's ship, to raise steam, the young commander was sent for in hot haste by his admiral, hurriedly given his instructions, and told to raise steam and make for Portsmouth with the news in "something less than a pig's whisper."
Delighted at receiving this important commission, Murray Frobisher had hurried back to his little ship, helped the astonished stokers with his own hands to raise steam, and at midnight on a dark, blustering night, with half a gale blowing from the south-east, the sea running steeply, and a heavy driving rain lashing right in their faces, he and his little crew cleared from Portland Roads, dashed across Weymouth Bay at a reckless speed—considering the height of the sea—and doubled Saint Alban's Head.
Murray found that the storm in the bay was a mere trifle compared with that which he was now facing; so, for safety's sake, and to avoid being blown ashore, he was compelled to stand off the coast a good deal farther than he had originally intended. He knew that he was in a position of some danger, and, besides being himself additionally on the alert, he posted an extra look-out, with orders to keep his eyes wide open for the first signs of light or loom of moving ship upon that black, rushing waste of water.
T.B. 42 was behaving splendidly, and Murray was just congratulating himself that, in spite of the violence of the wind, his little craft was fighting her way to her destination at a good honest twelve knots an hour, when, with a shriek like that of a thousand warlocks, the wind and sleet whirled down in a burst of vicious fury that struck the boat like a solid wall, rendering it a matter of physical impossibility for any human being to face it until after its first violence was exhausted.
It was during those few fateful moments that the catastrophe occurred. As the gust veered away astern, and the breathless, half-frozen seamen on deck were again able to direct their eyes ahead, there came a wild cry from the look-out forward of: "Port your helm, sir; port your helm!" followed, before Murray could spring to the assistance of the quartermaster at the wheel, by a splintering crash, the rending sound of steel rasping through steel. Then the little craft heeled over to starboard, until Murray felt himself sliding bodily down the steeply inclined deck towards the sea; while above, right over his head, as it seemed, he could dimly perceive the outline of a great, towering metal stem that still surged and sawed onward and over Number 42, relentless as fate itself.
A second later, and the catastrophe was complete. The colliding steamer lifted with the 'scend of the waves and crashed down yet again upon the hapless torpedo-boat, and young Frobisher found himself in the raging sea, clinging instinctively to something—he knew not what—that had come away in his hands as he flung them out wildly to prevent himself from sliding off the deck. As his head appeared above the brine after the plunge, he heard certain dreadful cries which he never forgot as long as he lived. They were the death shrieks of his unhappy crew, imprisoned below among the bursting steam-pipes and boilers, the cascade of white-hot coals from the furnaces, and the crumpling wreckage of machinery and torn plates; and he knew that his trim little ship and his gallant comrades were gone from him for ever.
As it happened, those on the look-out on board the liner, with the storm behind them and their eyes consequently clear, had seen the boat at the instant when the collision had become inevitable; and the captain had promptly rung his engines astern, brought his ship to a standstill, and lowered his boats in an endeavour to rescue the survivors. But the only person rescued was the unfortunate Murray himself, and even he was hauled on board more dead than alive, grieving that it had not been his lot to share the fate of his crew.
Upon his recovery he was called upon to face a court martial for the loss of his ship; and—strange were the ways of the Judge-Advocate—was dismissed that Service which, confronted by a less-harsh officer, he might have remained to honour. And since that miserable moment the unhappy man had been living upon his slender savings, endeavouring meanwhile to obtain employment of any sort that would keep the wolf from the door.
At the moment when this story opens, Murray Frobisher was down to his last few sovereigns, and had therefore been unfeignedly glad to accept the invitation of kind-hearted Dick Penryn, his former comrade-in-arms, to share the cottage at Kingston where, having no ties of any kind, that young gentleman was staying during his spell of shore leave. And it was Murray whom Penryn was momentarily expecting on this stormy, cold, and dismal evening in March, 1893, just a year after the catastrophe in the Channel which had ruined his career in the British Navy, and all but broken his heart.
Dick Penryn had scarcely finished another page of his very fascinating book when he heard the front door of the cottage open. A furious gust of wind tore through the little house for a moment, causing even the occupant of the easy chair to shiver in sympathy with his friend; and then the door was shut with a slam, and he heard Murray Frobisher's well-known footsteps ascending the stairs. But there was not the former light-hearted spring in them. Murray was coming upstairs slowly and heavily, like a man carrying a ponderous burden, and Dick heaved a sharp sigh as he murmured to himself, "No luck again to-day, evidently; else we should have had Murray coming up here full steam ahead. Poor old boy! I wonder what on earth will happen to him if he doesn't get a berth soon? A man can't go on like this for ever without losing heart; and there are already signs that the boy is beginning to lose hope. I wish to Heaven there was something I could do for him; but unfortunately I have not a particle of influence; I am absolutely powerless."
At this moment the door of the little room opened, and Murray stood framed in the opening, looking at his friend with an expression in which weariness, disappointment, and a certain suggestion of relief were curiously blended. If Dick Penryn was what some people were in the habit of calling a giant, then Murray Frobisher could only be considered gigantic. Standing fully six feet four inches in his boots, broad in proportion, weighing fully sixteen stone, with dark, olive complexion bronzed almost to the shade of an Arab's by exposure to the weather, and with clean-shaven cheeks and lips, and close-cropped, wavy black hair, the man was a truly magnificent specimen of humanity, compelling the attention of all with whom he came in contact.
"So you're back at last, Murray," shouted Penryn, leaping out of his chair, and speaking more cheerfully than he felt that the occasion warranted. "Come inside, man; come inside! Don't stand there in the doorway letting in all the draught; goodness knows it's cold enough without that!" And as Murray closed the door behind him, and slowly pulled forward a chair to the fire, he proceeded: "And what's the news to-day, old man? Any luck of any sort; or has it been the usual style of things—offer your services and have them declined with, or without, thanks?"
"Well," answered Murray in his deep bass tones, stretching out his half-frozen hands to the blaze, "I hardly know what to think about to-day. It certainly has been a little different from the usual run of things, but not very much. During the whole of the morning, and for the better part of the afternoon, luck was dead against me, as usual. Then, about four o'clock, there came just one little ray of light to brighten the darkness."
"Capital!" broke in Dick, cheerfully. "Every little helps, you know. Straws show which way the wind blows, and all the rest of it. Tell us about this ray of light of yours."
"Well," answered Frobisher, with a wry smile, "I don't know that it was very much of a ray, after all; but I'll tell you what happened. I had been running up and down office stairs from before nine o'clock until about three in the afternoon, without result, and I became heartily sick of it; and just by way of a change, I made up my mind to take a run down to the docks and see whether there was anything doing there.
"I got down at about three-thirty, and, feeling pretty hungry—for I had had nothing to eat since breakfast—I went into a small place within hail of the dock gates, and asked for some bread and cheese and beer. The landlady, a kindly old soul, seeing, I suppose, that I looked cold, and as though I could do with a rest, showed me into a little sanctum labelled Captains' Room, where, I was glad to see, there blazed a fine big fire, before which stood two or three very cosy-looking arm-chairs.
"Throwing myself into one, I began to discuss my frugal luncheon with considerable appetite, and had nearly finished when the door opened, and in came the most curious-looking little man I have ever set eyes on. That he was a seaman was perfectly apparent to the meanest intelligence, and I at once set him down as the first officer—as they call themselves nowadays—or perhaps even the skipper, of a tramp steamer. He was certainly not more than five feet in height, but his breadth of shoulder and depth of chest were so enormous as to amount, literally, to a deformity; and I should judge that his strength must be herculean, as the novelists say. He was bronzed to the colour of deep mahogany, and had a heavy black moustache and a beard which grew right up to his eyes—deep-set, black, and as brilliant as diamonds. Added to this he wore gold ear-rings, and, altogether, was as like my conception of one of the pirates of old, about whom we used to read in our young days, as any man possibly could be.
"From the moment the man entered the room I began to feel deeply interested in him, and could scarcely refrain from staring at him openly. 'Here,' I said to myself, 'is a personality; a man who has knocked about the world during most of his life; a man who has seen things and done things, some of which, probably, would not bear too close scrutiny.' For he gave me the impression of being a person who would make a good, stanch friend, but who would prove to be a thoroughly bad and dangerous enemy.
"Apparently he was a bit surprised to find anybody else in the captains' sanctum at that time of day; and, after the first hasty glance, it seemed as though he, too, was taking more than usual interest in your humble servant; for every time I raised my eyes to take a quiet look at him, I found his black, glittering orbs fixed on me, with that curious, unblinking stare that you may have noticed among certain species of birds. Seriously, Dick, I can tell you that he kept this staring business up so long that I was beginning to feel quite uncomfortable, and had made up my mind to finish my meal as soon as possible and continue my journey down to the docks, when I heard him give vent to a kind of grunt, which might have expressed satisfaction, dissatisfaction, disgust, or any other feeling for aught I could judge.
"Then, taking his eyes off me, this curious customer tugged the bell and ordered the servant to bring him a glass of 'rum hot', and a bit of cold meat and bread; from which, when it arrived, he began to make a meal, eating as though it were the first time he had touched food for several days. Indeed, he ate so fast and so wolfishly, that by the time I had finished my own meal, and had rung the bell for the bill, my piratical friend was also pushing away his plate with a sigh of satisfaction, and asking for his bill. Both reckonings having been paid, I was on the point of leaving the room when the stranger, whose name I afterwards learned was Drake—a quite appropriate name, I thought, for such a freebooter-looking character—put out a great, hairy paw as though to prevent me, and remarked, in a deep, rumbling voice:—
"'One moment, young gentleman. Unless you are in a great hurry I'd like to have a word or two with you.'
"Naturally, Dick, I was a little astonished," proceeded Murray, "but I must confess that I had become vastly interested in the little man, and, as offers of employment sometimes come from the most unlikely sources, like a drowning man clutching at a straw I determined to hear what he had to say. Possibly it might lead to something; and in any case I felt that I should do no harm by listening to him.
"'I think I can spare you a few minutes,' I remarked. 'What is it you wish to see me about?'
"'You're a seaman, aren't you?' he said, answering my question with another.
"'Yes,' I replied, 'I am.'
"'Navy man, too, unless I'm much mistaken,' was his next remark.
"'Well,' I said, rather hesitatingly, 'I was a Navy man—a lieutenant— not so very long ago, but I had the misfortune to lose my ship under circumstances for which, I must say, in justice to myself, I think I was hardly to blame. However, the members of the court martial took a different view of the case, and I was, to put it bluntly, dismissed the Service. Since then I have been looking out for other employment— something in my own line, if possible; but if not, then anything that I can lay my hands on. But so far, I am sorry to say, I have met with nothing but rebuffs. Nobody on the face of this earth appears to need a man with my qualifications just now.'
"'Ha, ha!' chuckled the little man, rubbing his hands gleefully. 'Just as I thought when I first set eyes on you. Here, says I to myself, is a seaman, sure enough—I could tell that at the first glance—a Navy man, too, by the way he carries himself, and no longer in the Service by the general—er—um—not on active duty at the moment, I mean to say,' he ended, rather lamely, with an apologetic cough.
"I felt myself going red round the ears, Dick, and might have been inclined to be angry had anyone else spoken thus. But there was something about my little pirate that assured me he did not in the least intend to be offensive, so I only laughed, rather ruefully. If my 'out-of-work' condition was so apparent as to be noted by even a common seaman, it was no wonder, I told myself, that I so often came out of private offices with the words, 'Nothing to suit you, I'm afraid, Mr Frobisher', ringing in my ears.
"'Well,' I said, 'granted that I am an ex-naval officer looking for a job, what bearing has that upon your business with me? For I suppose you must have some idea that you and I can do business together, since you started the conversation.'
"'What bearing?' he repeated. 'Well, I'll just tell you. As it happens, I'm looking at this moment for exactly such a man as you appear to be. My name's Drake—Captain John Drake, of the tramp steamer Quernmore, two thousand five hundred and sixty tons register, to be exact—and, from what you've just said, I think I could make a pretty good shot at your tally. Should I be very far wrong if I said that you were ex-lieutenant Murray Frobisher?'
"'On the contrary,' I answered, 'you would have hit the bull's-eye dead in the centre.'
"'I was certain of it,' he smiled; 'and again I say, more emphatically than ever, that you're the very man I'm looking for. If you'll take that chair and pull up to the fire, I'll take the other and we'll have a bit of a palaver.'
"Having seated ourselves comfortably, Drake at once proceeded:—
"'I may tell you, Mr Frobisher, that for the past twenty years I have been captain of this same steamer, trading between eastern ports all the while; and as this is the first time I have been back to old England during the whole of that period, I don't think I'm very far wrong in saying that I know as much about the East as any man living—perhaps a good deal more. And there's not very much going on out there that I don't know about. Sometimes, even, I get to know about things before they begin to happen, and am able to make my plans and put a little money in my pocket thereby.
"'This is one of the occasions upon which I have managed to get wind of something in advance, and in this case also I can see my way to making quite a nice little pile of money. First of all, however, I must ask you to pledge your word that, if after I have told you my plans you don't feel inclined to come in with me, you'll do nothing to upset those plans in any way whatever.'
"I gave him the required promise, perhaps just a little too readily, and Drake resumed his story.
"'It so happens that my last port of call was—well—a small seaport in Korea; and, while there, I heard some news that made me sit up and take notice, as the Yankees say. It seems that, for some time past, the Government of Korea has been playing some very hanky-panky games: taxing the people until the burden has become unbearable; punishing the smallest offences with death by torture; confiscating the goods and money of every man who dared to allow himself a few more luxuries than his neighbours; and, in short, playing the very mischief all round. Naturally, even the mildest-mannered worm will turn under too much of that kind of thing, and the average Korean is anything but mild-mannered; so that, a little while ago, a party of officials decided that they had had quite enough of it, and proceeded quietly and methodically to foment a rebellion against the Government.
"'When I left Korea, things were very nearly ripe for the outbreak; but it would have been suicidal folly for the rebels to have attempted anything of the kind without proper arms to back it up, for the Korean soldiery are naturally on the side from which they draw their pay—that is to say, the side of the Government—and they also happen to be particularly well armed just now. It was therefore necessary for the would-be rebels to procure weapons before any successful revolt could be undertaken, and one day I was interviewed by one of the officials on the subject of supplying the rebel army with modern rifles.
"'To make a rather long story short, the upshot of the interview was that I was commissioned to supply the rebels with one hundred thousand rifles, with the necessary ammunition, at a price which, if the venture is successful, will make it possible for me to give up the sea altogether and live ashore at my ease.'
"'Yes, yes,' I interrupted, rather impatiently; 'this is interesting enough in its way, Captain, but I fail to see where it concerns me.'
"'I was just coming to that,' returned Drake, 'when you interrupted me. I was unfortunate enough to lose my chief officer overboard in a hurricane in the Indian Ocean on the way home—a circumstance which upset me and my plans very considerably, for he was a fine seaman, had been with me many years, and knew all my little ways. In order to bring off this venture successfully, I must replace him, for there will be difficult and dangerous work ahead; and I need a man as much like my old chief as possible, a man who is willing to go anywhere and do anything; a man who has the brains to organise, and the muscle and courage to keep his own end up in a fight.
"'I have often heard of you, Mr Frobisher, as being just that kind of man; and I followed the whole account of your misfortune and the proceedings of the court martial in the newspapers. When I learned that they had dismissed you from the Service, I considered it a most shocking error of judgment, and told myself that, had you been in my employ, you would not have been so harshly treated. I would have liked at the time to make a try to secure your services, but I had my own chief officer with me then, and consequently had nothing to offer you. But now things are different. You need employment; I need your services, and am prepared to pay you well for them and give you a share of the profits. One of the conditions attaching to my contract is that I deliver the rifles and ammunition into the hands of the rebel officers at—at a small town a considerable distance inland from the coast; and as I cannot leave my ship, the duty of conveying the cargo inland would devolve upon you. This is where the dangerous part of the business comes in, and I shall make allowance therefore in the rate of pay I propose to offer you.
"'If you will join me—to get down to hard facts—I will give you forty pounds a month, from the day you sign on with me until you leave the ship on her return to England, or until you leave her out in the East, if you care to do that. There are plenty of chances for such a man as yourself out there. And, in addition, I agree to give you a share of one-twentieth of my profits, which I estimate should amount to about twenty thousand pounds sterling. Therefore, one thousand pounds, over and above your pay, will be your share of the enterprise. Now, I've said all I have to say; I've put the proposition before you; I've told you that it's likely to be both profitable and dangerous: what do you say to joining me as my chief officer?'
"I tell you, Dick, I was too amazed to reply for a few moments, and my brain was in such a whirl that all I could presently say was that I would think the thing over, and meet him again at the same place to-morrow to give him a reply. The money part of the business naturally appeals very strongly to one, but the amount seems almost too good to be true. There would be at least six months' pay at forty pounds a month, and a thousand on top of that, if the expedition should prove successful; so that, all being well, I should have a little capital in my hands to work with at the end of that time, and might be able so to invest it as to make myself independent, for the remainder of my life, of anything like the experiences of this past year.
"On the other hand, I am inclined to look a little doubtfully upon this gun-running, or smuggling, business. It is all utterly at variance with Navy traditions; and I would rather starve than set my hand to anything that has even the appearance of being in the least degree dishonest. Still, I am bound to say that, from all I can learn, it looks as though the Korean rebels have a genuine grievance, and that the country might be all the better for a drastic change of government; so that I am really very undecided what to do, Dick. One thing is certain—I must get employment of some kind; and if you are seriously of opinion that I can accept Drake's offer without soiling my hands I shall most certainly do so. I have considered the matter pretty thoroughly myself on the way home, and, to tell the truth, I have almost persuaded myself that I may accept."
Dick Penryn, who during this narrative had been leaning back in his chair smoking, and listening attentively, took his pipe from his mouth, tapped the ashes out slowly and thoughtfully against the bars of the grate, and sat up straight. Then, after a lengthy pause, he delivered judgment.
"Well, Murray," he said, "I've listened most attentively to your yarn, and I've been trying to look at the matter from an unprejudiced and independent standpoint. Of course, as you very truthfully say, anything in the nature of gun-running or smuggling is totally opposed to all our Navy traditions. At the same time, you are, unfortunately, no longer in the Navy; to all intents and purposes you are now a private individual, at liberty to take up any calling, profession, trade, or whatever you care to term it, that offers you a chance to make a living. Employment of some sort you certainly must have; and so long as that employment is honest—I might almost say in your particular case, so long as it is not dishonest—I think you will be wise to take the first thing that offers.
"You have been out of harness for over a year now, and your ready cash must be running pretty low, I should think; besides, this is the first offer that has come your way since you left the Navy, and if you do not accept it while you have the opportunity, it may perhaps be another year or more before you are given another chance. Personally, I do not see anything wrong with Drake's proposal. It is a purely business enterprise. Certain folk require certain goods, and Drake contracts to supply them. In order to carry out his agreement he needs your help, and is willing to pay very handsomely for it; so my advice to you, my son, is that you take what is offered, and be thankful. Of course I need not say that if the arms had been intended for any country at war, or likely at any time to be at war, with England, such a thing would be absolutely impossible for you to contemplate for a moment; but as things are—well, I have no hesitation in saying that under similar circumstances my conscience would not worry me very much."
At this very clear and definite expression of opinion, Frobisher's anxious expression vanished. He had evidently been a little afraid that his friend might not look altogether favourably on the scheme; and he was not so deeply in love with it himself that he would have felt inclined to follow it up had Dick voted against it or pronounced it of too "shady" a character for a gentleman to meddle with. But since Dick's views coincided so completely with his own, he felt that there could be no longer any room for hesitation.
"I'm glad indeed to hear you say that, Dick," he exclaimed, jumping up. "It decides me absolutely. Tomorrow I'll run down to the docks, see Drake on board the Quernmore instead of waiting to meet him at the hotel as I had arranged, and tell him I have decided to accept his offer. I would go down to-night if it were not so late; for now that I've made up my mind I should feel pretty bad if meanwhile he happened to meet someone else who had not so many scruples as myself, and who needed a job badly enough to accept the opening on the spot, without taking time to think it over.
"However, I don't think Drake will interview anybody else until he has had my answer, for he certainly seemed anxious enough to secure my particular services; so I'll hope for the best and leave things in the hands of fate. And now, Dick," he went on, passing his hand across his forehead, "I've had a long tiring day, and have a rather bad headache into the bargain; so, if you don't mind, I think I'll toddle up to bed and get to sleep; for I want to be up early in the morning. Good night, old man!"
"Good night, Murray, my hearty!" replied his friend. "I hope you'll sleep well, and have pleasant dreams. You ought to, after this piece of good luck. By the way, when does Drake want you to go aboard?"
"Oh, to be sure; I quite forgot to mention that. He told me that if I decided to join him he would require me to be on board as soon as I possibly could. Indeed, he hinted that if I could make it convenient to turn up tomorrow evening and sleep aboard the ship, he would be more than pleased. You see, he has his cargo pretty nearly loaded, and hopes to be able to get away at midday the day after to-morrow; so the sooner I am on board the sooner I shall be able to take some of the worry and trouble and work off his shoulders."
"Great Scot!" exclaimed Dick, jumping up, "he wants you to join as soon as that! Why, I fully expected that you wouldn't be leaving under a week at the least. So to-night will be your last sleep in the old bed, for some months to come, at any rate—for I want you to make this place your home again as soon as ever you return. Make the most of it, therefore. You don't know where you may have to lie, in what queer places you may have to sleep, before you get back. Well, I suppose I'll see you in the morning at breakfast; and at any rate you'll be back here after you've interviewed Drake, in order to pack your traps, say good-bye, and so on?"
"Yes, you'll see me at breakfast, Dick; and I shall be back as soon as possible after I have seen the skipper, to pack and to say good-bye. By gad, Dick!" he went on, with a little burst of emotion, "but I'm more than sorry to have to leave you. You've been a mighty good chum to me, and as long as I live I'll never forget your kindness. I wish to goodness you were coming along too."
"So do I, old chap," answered Penryn, gripping his friend's hand; "but as to 'goodness' and 'kindness' to you, and all the rest of it—why, that's all rot, you know. Any man would do the same for his pal."
"Not every man, Dick," returned Murray, soberly. "If you only knew it, there are not a great many of your sort knocking about nowadays. Good night, again, old chap."
Frobisher slept well, and was not visited by any dreams, sweet or otherwise. We are sometimes told that dreams are sent to us as warnings, as forerunners of events that are to happen to us in the future; but if this is really true it seems strange that Murray's sleep should have been so deep and dreamless. For had that young man been able to foresee but one half of the strange and terrible adventures that were in store for him, it is scarcely to be doubted that he would, in spite of his long period of unemployment, have gladly allowed Captain Drake to take somebody else in his place, notwithstanding the offer of the forty pounds a month salary, and the thousand-pound bonus at the successful termination of the venture.
So soundly and dreamlessly did Frobisher sleep that he did not wake until the clear notes of the dressing bugle—a solemn farce which Dick insisted upon his servant performing when ashore—had almost finished ringing through the little cottage.
Punctually at 8 a.m. the old marine who acted as Dick's servant when he was ashore, and as general housekeeper and caretaker when he was afloat, sounded the bugle as a signal to his master that it was time to turn out; and the neighbours in the houses round about—who, by the way, referred to Penryn as "that very eccentric young man"—had come to look upon the instrument somewhat in the light of a town clock; so much so that several of them set their watches by it, and one old gentleman was in the habit of leaving his front door and sprinting for the eight-fifteen train to town punctually upon the first note.
Frobisher sat up in bed with a yawn, and was half-way to the bath-room before he was sufficiently wideawake to recollect that this morning was different from the three hundred and sixty-five odd preceding mornings. But as he remembered that at last he had secured the offer of regular and profitable employment—although not quite along the lines he had hoped for—he let out a whoop of rejoicing that made the cottage ring.
Having completed his toilet, Frobisher came downstairs whistling, to find Penryn standing in front of the fire, warming his coat tails and sniffing hungrily, while from the direction of the kitchen came certain savoury smells.
"'Morning, Dick!" was the response. "What's for breakfast this morning?"
"Don't know," answered his friend, "but it smells like eggs and bacon, and steak and mushrooms, and chops and kidneys on toast. I hope so, at any rate, for I'm hungry this morning, and feel quite ready for a snack."
"Snack!" laughed Frobisher. "Is what you have just mentioned your idea of a snack? It sounds to me more like the menu of an aldermanic banquet. By the way, I didn't know the parcel-postman had arrived yet; he's early, isn't he?"
"Oh," replied Dick, turning rather red, "I thought I'd put that away. No, the postman hasn't been. That's just something I went out for, early this morning, for—oh—for a friend of mine."
"Sorry, old man," said Murray, "I didn't mean to be inquisitive. By the way, is there a train to town somewhere about nine or half-past? I should like to catch it if there is."
"One at nine twenty-three," answered Dick. "You'll catch it easily. And now, here's Tom with the breakfast; bring yourself to an anchor, and let's begin. I'm as hungry as a hunter. How about yourself?"
"Rather better than usual this morning," laughed Frobisher. "A little hope is a splendid thing for giving one an appetite." And with this remark both the young men fell to with a will.
The meal finished, Frobisher hurried off to catch his train; travelled up to London; crossed the city; and took another train down to the docks. Arrived there, he enquired the whereabouts of the steamer Quernmore.
"Over there, sir," a policeman told him, pointing to a spot about two hundred yards distant; and thither the young man made his way, halting presently at the shore end of a gangway leading on to the steamer, to take a good look at the craft that was to be his floating home for so long a period.
Certainly, he told himself, if one might judge by appearances, Captain Drake had ample justification for being proud of his steamer; for she was as pretty a model of a craft as Frobisher, for all his long experience, had ever set eyes on. Indeed, one would almost have been excused for assuming that, but for her size, she might have been a private yacht at some period of her existence. Flush-decked, with a graceful curving run, a clipper bow with gilt figure-head, and a long, overhanging counter, the hull painted a particularly pleasing shade of dark green down to within a couple of feet of the water-line, and polished black below that, she made a picture completely satisfying to the eye of the most exacting critic. She was rigged as a topsail schooner, and her funnel was tall, oval-shaped, and cream-coloured. Indeed, anything less like the traditional tramp steamer, and more resembling a gentleman's yacht, it would have been difficult to find.
By the look of her, too, thought Frobisher, she should be able to show a pretty fair turn of speed, if she were put to it—sixteen knots at the least, the young lieutenant judged—and the idea occurred to him that possibly, some time in the future, the lives of her crew might depend upon those few extra knots of which she appeared capable.
However, it would not do to stand there admiring the ship. "Business before pleasure," the young man reminded himself; and, involuntarily straightening himself up as though about to board a man-of-war, Frobisher marched across the gangway, and asked the first seaman he met whether Captain Drake was aboard.
"He's in the chart-house at this moment, sir," answered the man; "I'll take you to him." And a minute later Frobisher found himself ducking his head in order to get in through the low chart-house door-way.
"Hillo! it's you already, is it?" exclaimed Drake, looking up from a chart over which he was poring. "I didn't expect to see you until this afternoon. Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I hope you've come to tell me that we are to be shipmates for this cruise," he added, eagerly. "If I can't persuade you to come in with me, I shall be obliged to sail shorthanded, for I've no time to do any more looking round now."
"Then you can make your mind easy," laughed Frobisher. "To tell you the simple truth, I believe I had practically made up my mind to sail with you before I said good-bye to you yesterday. Yes, I'm coming, skipper; and I hope, for both our sakes, that the voyage will turn out as successfully as you desire."
"Good man!" heartily ejaculated the skipper, thrusting out his hand. "That's the best news I've heard for a long while. Now, where's your dunnage? I'll show you your room, and you can settle down right away."
"My dunnage isn't down yet, skipper," replied Frobisher, smiling. "I came down just to tell you what I had decided, intending to go back and fetch my traps this afternoon."
Drake looked rather blank at hearing this. "That's a pity," he remarked, thoughtfully, half to himself. Then, addressing Frobisher: "Well, trot away back, and get them down here as quickly as you can, will ye? Certain events have happened since I saw you yesterday that make me anxious to leave at the very earliest moment possible, and I've already made arrangements to clear directly after I had seen you this afternoon."
"I'll be off at once, skipper," returned Frobisher, "and be back again not later than one o'clock." And the young man darted out of the chart-house, across the gangway, and out of the dock premises like a sprinter, leaving Drake staring open-mouthed after him.
"He certainly can take a hint quicker than any man I've ever met," said that worthy, as he resumed the study of his chart.
Two hours later Frobisher was back in Kingston, had packed his belongings, and was saying good-bye to his old friend, Dick Penryn.
Neither of the men felt very happy at parting, and both, after the manner of their kind, tried to conceal their real feelings by an exaggerated show of indifference. Thus it was that their farewells were brief, almost to curtness, and to the point; and it was only as Frobisher was actually on the door-step that Dick pushed into his friend's hands a parcel—the same parcel that had caught Frobisher's eye that morning. It was heavy, and the recipient could not guess, even remotely, as to its contents; but he thanked Dick heartily, tucked the package under his arm, and got into the cab which had been sent for.
One last firm hand-grip, two rather husky good-byes, now that the actual moment for parting had come, and the pair were separated—one bound for the far, mysterious East, the other to return in a few days to the ship he had come to look upon as his real home.
It was with a few minutes in hand that Frobisher leapt out of his cab at the dock gates, and collected his few belongings. He paid the cabby, and, with his customary swiftness of movement, turned and started to trot quickly through the gates towards the Quernmore; but as he did so, he collided violently with another man, causing him to sit down suddenly on the hard cobbles, while Frobisher himself dropped one of his portmanteaux.
The fat policeman on duty at the entrance chuckled loudly; Frobisher laughed and picked up his bag, as he murmured an apology; but the victim on the cobbles appeared to be saying unpleasant things venomously in some language quite unfamiliar to the young lieutenant—who knew a good many—and this caused him to pause an instant and look at the man.
He was a brown, or rather, yellow man; and for a moment Frobisher took him for a Chinaman. But a second glance convinced the latter that he did not belong to that nation, nor to the Japanese, although he was undoubtedly of Eastern extraction.
Murray had no time to waste in conjectures, however, and with a hearty English "Sorry, old man!" he proceeded to the Quernmore, where Drake himself conducted him to his state-room.
Frobisher would have left his unpacking until the evening, and gone on duty at once; but Drake informed him that there was no need. All the cargo was aboard; the crew—specially selected men—were all in the forecastle; and there was nothing to be done until three o'clock, when Drake would get his papers, and the tug would arrive to help him out of the dock. Frobisher therefore unpacked and stowed his things away; afterwards getting into his first-officer's uniform, which had been hastily adapted from his own old Navy outfit by the removal of the shoulder-straps and the "executive curl" from the gold stripes on the sleeves. He then proceeded to examine the parcel placed in his hands by Dick Penryn.
Removing the brown paper, he found a square, polished mahogany box, fastened by two hooks as well as by a lock and key; and, upon opening the lid, he gave a cry of pleasure and surprise.
Inside were a pair of most business-like large-calibre, blued revolvers, carrying the heavy .450 cartridge—serviceable weapons indeed, capable of dropping a man in his tracks at a distance of a hundred yards. In addition to the weapons themselves, there was a cavity beneath the tray in which they rested, fitted up to contain exactly one hundred rounds of ammunition, and it was this—deadly-looking, blunt-nosed bullets in brass cartridge-cases—that had made the parcel so heavy. With his eyes snapping with gratification, Frobisher locked away the case in a drawer, and went out on deck to find Drake.
As he emerged from the companion-way, he saw that the tug was already alongside; and he immediately ran up on to the bridge, so as to be ready to carry out any orders that Drake might have for him. But it appeared that the skipper intended to work his ship out of dock entirely with his own hands, so Frobisher had a few minutes in which to look round him and take in, for the last time for several months at any rate, the intimate sights around him.
The Quernmore was now slowly passing out between the pierheads, and Frobisher was keeping a sharp look-out to see that none of the crew attempted a "pierhead jump", when he happened to catch sight of his late acquaintance of the collision. The man was standing at the extreme end of the pier, leaning against a bollard, and observing the Quernmore and her crew with a scrutiny so close as to be a little suspicious; and Murray half-turned to point him out to Drake.
He need not have troubled to do so, however, for he at once perceived that the skipper was already aware of the man's presence. If looks went for anything, too, Drake was intensely annoyed; and the thought at once occurred to Frobisher that the presence of this yellow man might possibly have had something to do with Drake's sudden resolution to leave during the early afternoon. He said nothing, however, at the moment, but continued to stare at the Easterner as long as he could see him clearly, in order to impress the man's appearance and features indelibly on his memory. For a presentiment had just seized him that this man was in some strange way bound up with his own fate, and that they were destined to meet again under far different circumstances from those under which they had come together, shortly before, at the dock gates.
He had not much time or opportunity, however, to dwell at length upon such matters; for a quarter of an hour later the tug had cast off, the pilot had taken charge, and the Quernmore, under her own steam, was proceeding rapidly down the winding, traffic-laden river.
They were passing Gravesend when Drake suddenly turned to Frobisher and remarked:
"I say, Mr Frobisher, did you happen to notice a yellow-skinned chap standing on the pierhead as we left the dock?"
"Why, yes," replied Frobisher. "That was the second time I'd seen him. The first time I cannoned into him at the dock gates as I was coming aboard, and sent him spinning. You should have heard the remarks he made—though I didn't understand a word he said, but guessed what they meant by his expression. I believe, if it hadn't been for the bobby at the gate, the fellow would have tried to knife me, although my running him down was quite an accident. I saw his hand fly to his waist-belt, but I didn't stay to argue with him. I didn't like the looks of the fellow a little bit, and I have a sort of presentiment that we have not seen the last of him. He seemed to be taking quite a lot of interest in the Quernmore. Of what nationality do you suppose him to be?"
"That man," answered Drake, "has caused me a heap of anxiety. Ever since we started loading our cargo, he has been on the watch every day and all day. I'll wager he counted every chest and case that we took aboard; and I feel convinced in my own mind that he is a Korean spy. If so, we may be in for a lot of trouble when we arrive out there; for he can easily cable, or even get there before us by catching a fast mail-boat. I tell you candidly that I am not very comfortable about the business; and I shall be glad to get out of English waters, too, for I am not quite as clear as I should like to be concerning the law, in its bearing on cases of this sort. I fancy that the British Government has the power to stop or delay us, if our Korean friend chooses to represent in the proper quarters that I am carrying arms to rebels arrayed against their lawful sovereign."
"If the news should by any means leak out," said Frobisher, "I think there's no doubt that you will be delayed, if not stopped altogether; for England does not want a quarrel on her hands with anybody just now, however insignificant they may be. So we had better keep our weather eyes lifting, and be prepared for all eventualities."
By the time they cleared the mouth of the river and dropped the pilot, however, darkness had long since fallen; and Drake hoped that with the dawn of the morrow he would be far enough down the Channel to be clear of any danger of recall or overhauling.
To this end he shaped a course that would carry him well over toward the French coast, determining to run down on that side of the Channel and so avoid, if possible, any prowling English cruisers. And it was well for him that he did so; for on the following morning, happening to take a glance astern through the glass, Frobisher caught sight, about eight miles distant, of a small gunboat coming along in their wake at top-speed, and flying a signal of some sort which the ex-naval officer shrewdly suspected to be a summons to heave-to, though the craft was too far away for the signal to be plainly read.
He at once informed Drake, who promptly went down to the engine-room and gave the chief engineer a few private instructions, with the result that, presently, dense volumes of smoke began to pour out of the Quernmore's funnel, and her speed quickened up until Frobisher judged her to be doing quite sixteen knots. Then he and Drake took turns at watching the war-ship astern, when it soon became evident that, even if she was not increasing the distance, the Quernmore was at least holding her own.
That this was apparent to the commander of the gunboat was demonstrated shortly afterwards, when a puff of white smoke broke out from her bows, and the distant boom of a gun floated down to them.
"I feared as much," exclaimed Drake, uneasily; "but I believe we shall get clear unless that fellow's firing brings a cruiser out from Plymouth to stop us. But,"—brightening up a little—"I fancy we are too far over toward the French side for anything of that sort; so, if we can only keep ahead, I think we shall pull out safely."
The gunboat continued firing, and after a time began to send solid shot after the flying Quernmore, as a stronger hint to heave-to; but her guns were not powerful enough for the range, and the shot dropped harmlessly into the water far away astern. She was still in sight when darkness fell, but had lost ground badly during the day; and when the following morning dawned she was out of sight below the horizon.
This was the only attempt made to stop Drake in English waters; and he was shortly afterward safely in the Bay of Biscay.
There is no need to describe in detail the voyage to the East, since it was entirely uneventful. They stopped at Port Said to coal; coaled again at Colombo and Hongkong; and then headed straight for the Korean coast, neither Drake nor Frobisher having taken particular notice of the P&O liner that had left England the day after themselves, and steamed out of Colombo harbour just as the Quernmore was entering it. Neither did they observe the fashionably-dressed, yellow-skinned gentleman on board the liner who treated them to such a close scrutiny through a pair of field-glasses. They had, for the moment, forgotten all about their Korean friend of the docks; and, in any case, would hardly have expected to find him on the first-class promenade deck of a crack ocean liner.
It was just two months after leaving London when, late one afternoon, Drake pointed ahead, to the north, indicating what at first sight appeared to be a belt of cloud right down upon the horizon.
"Ah!" remarked Frobisher, following the direction of the skipper's outstretched finger; "we are nearly at our destination. That's Quelpart Island, I take it. We ought to anchor off Fusan, then, about this time to-morrow, eh, skipper?"
Drake turned and regarded his officer solemnly. Then he slowly lowered his right eyelid.
"We shall pass Fusan about that time, Mr Frobisher," he said; "but we do not stop there. Fusan is our port, according to the ship's papers, I happen to remember; but our actual destination is a small harbour about two hundred miles north of that. We should never be able to get our cargo unloaded at Fusan, much less into the rebels' hands. Sam-riek is our goal—quite a small unimportant place, right on the coast. There's good, sheltered anchorage there; and, if we have the luck we deserve, we shall be able to unload the stuff without fear of interruption."
"Ah!" remarked Frobisher, and relapsed into deep thought.
On the evening of the second day following, the Quernmore was close in under the land; and, just as the sun was setting behind the Korean hills, the anchor plashed down from the bows, and the voyage was at an end. The Quernmore had reached her destination, done her part; and now it was for Murray Frobisher to carry out the other half of Drake's contract, and place the cargo in the hands of the rebels, at a spot a week's journey or more up-country. Would he, or would he not, be able to do this; and, more important still, from his own personal point of view, would he be able to get back to the ship with a whole skin? Time alone would show.
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.
Frobisher scrutinised the Korean's face closely, but there was no shadow of change in its Oriental impassivity. For all that the man's bearing betrayed, he might never have moved from his post since the camp had been pitched; yet the young Englishman could not rid himself of the suspicion that Ling was not exactly what he appeared to be. Moreover, now that the man was standing inside the tent, Frobisher again became conscious of a faint suggestion of the odour of sandal-wood oil. However, it would not in any way suit his plans to betray his suspicions of the Korean at present, therefore he merely contented himself with remarking quietly:
"Very well, Ling. You had better get to sleep, so as to be rested by the morning; and I'll wake you as soon as it is time to break camp and be stirring. By the way, I fancied I heard someone prowling about my tent half an hour ago. I suppose you did not notice anything out of the common, or you would have reported it to me at once, eh?"
"Me no undelstand 'anything outel le common', mastel; what mastel mean?" enquired Ling, his almond-shaped eyes opening in apparent puzzlement.
"I mean," replied Frobisher, rather testily—for he now felt almost convinced that the fellow was trying to hoodwink him—"that I suppose you are quite sure that no spy, no one belonging to the enemy, in fact, approached or entered the camp while I was asleep and you were on guard?"
"Oh!" exclaimed Ling, his face breaking out into a smile, "I undelstand now. No, mastel; nobody not come neal camp. If anyone had come he would be dead by now; me shoot any stlangel quick, without ask any questions."
"All right!" answered Frobisher, permitting himself to be almost persuaded against his better judgment that the man was honest, so absolutely child-like and bland was his manner; "get away to your own quarters and secure as much sleep as you possibly can, for we have a long march before us to-morrow." And he turned away, to show Ling that his presence was no longer required.
But at the moment of turning he could almost have sworn that he caught sight of Ling's lips parted in a sardonic smile. Frobisher wheeled again immediately, but when he once more looked at the man, the Korean's face was as indifferently emotionless as though carved from stone, and Murray was compelled to acknowledge that the expression which he thought he had noticed must have been due to the flickering shadows cast by the lantern that he carried in his hand.
Thus dismissed, Ling trotted off and threw himself down beside the inner wheels of one of the carts, covered his face with a fold of his ample cloak, and was, to all outward appearance, fast asleep on the instant. Frobisher, after regarding the recumbent form for a long minute or more, silently tiptoed away to his post of observation, having reached which, he extinguished the lantern, making sure, first of all, that his matches were ready to hand in his pocket, so that the light might not prove a convenient target for any prowling sharpshooter of the enemy.
He remained motionless in the one position for at least half an hour, and then, beginning to feel a trifle cramped from his spell of inactivity, made up his mind to traverse the sleeping camp, in order to assure himself fully that all was as it should be. Leaving the lantern behind him, he made his way slowly and silently, by the dim light of the stars, round the sleeping bivouac. And it was not until he had completed the entire circumference of the circle and was back again at his starting-point, that it occurred to him that he had not particularly noticed Ling, who, of course, ought to have been lying asleep where Frobisher had left him.
At once the Englishman's dormant suspicions again awoke into full activity, and, lighting the lantern, he proceeded to repeat his investigation, going his rounds in the opposite direction this time; and, sure enough, when he came to the place where he had left Ling lying, the spot was vacant—Ling had disappeared.
"Now what in the world is the explanation of this?" Frobisher asked himself testily. "I'm certain there is something fishy about the fellow, and I would give a trifle to be able to discover what game it is that he's playing. Where, in the name of Fortune, has he got to now, I wonder?"
As the thought passed through his mind he heard a sudden, suspicious sound right on the other side of the camp. The idea it conveyed to him was that a man had tripped or fallen over something; and this suggestion was strengthened when, immediately afterward, certain low muttered words in the Korean tongue, which sounded remarkably like a string of hearty expletives, issued from the same quarter. And the voice was undoubtedly that of Ling.
Frobisher whipped the revolver out of his pocket and leapt like a deer in the direction of the sound, arriving on the spot just in time to discover Ling sitting upright on the dewy grass, alternately rubbing his head and his shins. The Englishman stood looking down at the other for a few moments, and in that brief interval found time to notice that his feet were soiled and plastered with fresh clay, which had certainly not been on them when Frobisher had left him half an hour previously. It was also certain that he could not have accumulated that clay within the confines of the camp, for the space where the wagons had been drawn up was carpeted entirely with grass, and there was no vestige of clay anywhere within the circle. Frobisher therefore felt more convinced than ever that Ling was something very different from what he represented himself to be.
"Well, Ling," he remarked sternly, after a pause, during which the Korean had been vigorously rubbing himself, "what's happened to you? Where have you been; what have you been doing?" And as he spoke he brought his right hand slightly forward, so that the rays of light from the lantern which he carried fell upon the gleaming barrel of his revolver.
Ling observed the motion, and shrank back guiltily. "Oh, mastel," he quavered, "me thinkee me heal a sound ovel hele—fol me too flightened to sleep—and me come hele to see what the mattel."
"What kind of sound did you think you heard?" queried Frobisher, looking the man square in the eyes.
Ling tried to return the gaze, but failed. His almond-shaped eyes met the other's for a few seconds, and then turned ground-ward.
"Me believe me heal someone moving ovel hele," he replied, "and so me came see if anybody tly to get in."
"Then what did you fall over?" asked Frobisher.
"Me go look see if anybody hiding outside camp," explained Ling glibly, "and me fall ovel shafts of calt coming back. Me no see clealy without lanteln," he continued, volubly.
"If you believed you heard a movement," said Frobisher, "why didn't you come and tell me, instead of going yourself? Besides, it seems strange that you, who ought to have been sleepy after your spell of duty, should have noticed those suspicious sounds, while I, who was wideawake, heard nothing."
"No undelstand, mastel," said Ling, regarding Frobisher with a blank stare.
"No, you scoundrel!" retorted Frobisher angrily; "you only understand just what suits you, don't you? However, understand this, my fine fellow," he went on, bringing the revolver into full view, and shaking it in front of the now thoroughly frightened Korean; "if I find that you've been up to any tricks, I'll shoot you, as sure as my name's what it is, so you had better be very careful. Do you understand that? Very well, then; get over to your place and lie down; and mark this—don't let me catch you slinking about this camp any more to-night. Savvee?"
"Me savvee plenty, mastel," replied Ling, gathering himself up and hobbling away. He added some other words in his own language, in a tone that sounded anything but reassuring; but as Frobisher was totally unfamiliar with the Korean tongue, he was compelled to let the matter pass unnoticed.
The remainder of the night slipped away without interruption. But shortly after the incident above referred to, Frobisher noticed that the stars were becoming obscured, and about two o'clock in the morning rain began to fall, softly at first, then increasing in volume until, in half an hour after the beginning, it seemed as though the very bottom had fallen out of the heavens, and thus allowed the water pent up there to fall upon the earth in an overwhelming cataract.
One by one, as they became chilled by the wet, the sleepers awoke, and crawled drowsily either into or beneath the carts; and soon Frobisher was the only human being in sight anywhere in camp. He was quickly drenched to the skin, but realising how excellent a screen for rushing the camp this downpour would make, he remained at his post, shivering with cold, for the rest of the night; and by the time that morning dawned, was feeling weary and wretched.
As soon, however, as the first hint of dawn paled the eastern sky, the rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and Frobisher aroused Ling and gave him orders to call the men to their breakfast, so that an early start might be made.
When Frobisher poked his head under the hood of the cart where the Korean had taken refuge from the rain, he somehow very strongly suspected that that individual had been awake and sitting up at the moment of his approach; yet he was obliged to shake the man vigorously for a full minute before he could be made to comprehend that it was time to bestir himself.
As soon as Ling permitted himself to realise this fact, however, he sprang from the cart with an admirable assumption of briskness, and soon had the mule-drivers at work preparing breakfast and inspanning the wet and wretched-looking mules. He even took the trouble to light a fire himself and prepare a cup of hot tea for the "mastel", for which the drenched and shivering young Englishman felt sincerely grateful.
The young man had taken only a single sip, however, when he detected a very peculiar taste in the liquid, and spat the mouthful out on to the ground, with an exclamation of disgust. Happening to glance upward at the moment, he caught sight of Ling regarding him with a peculiar expression, in which hate, cunning, and satisfaction were curiously mingled; and Frobisher could scarcely repress his anger as he realised the meaning of that malignant glare. Not content with having attempted to murder him by means of the knife during the night, the scoundrel was now trying to put an end to him by means of poison; a powerful and very painful poison, too, surmised Frobisher, if he might judge by the burning, biting sensation that tingled on his throat, lips, and tongue.
It was not Frobisher's policy, however, to let Ling see that he was suspected, otherwise the man might become desperate and adopt some still more strenuous measure, which it might be difficult if not impossible to frustrate. Therefore, forcing back the words of indignation and accusation that leapt to his lips, and making a strong effort to command his voice so that it might not quiver, he remarked quietly: "Hi, Ling! This tea is very strong. You've forgotten to put in any sugar. I suppose there is some, isn't there?"
Ling repressed a smile, dived under one of the cart hoods, and presently reappeared with a few lumps of the required sweetening, which Frobisher calmly dropped into his cup, stirring them round so as to dissolve them completely. He then set the cup down beside him, as though to let the liquid cool, and watched Ling keenly until that wily Oriental was looking another way, when he quickly capsized the contents of the cup on to the grass, where the liquid was immediately absorbed by the damp earth.
When Ling returned for the cup Frobisher observed him closely, and could not avoid noticing the expression of satisfaction which even the man's usual impassivity failed to suppress completely. Frobisher was by this time quite convinced that Ling was a traitor, either belonging to, or in the pay of, the Government party; and he began to wonder whether, after all, the man had spoken the truth when he had affirmed that Korean troops were approaching to capture the caravan along the Yong-wol road. Might not the very reverse be the fact, and the troops be hiding in ambush along the very road that they were about to traverse? Frobisher was almost inclined to take the risk of altering the course of the caravan in order to regain the main road; but a few seconds' consideration caused him to abandon that idea. There were no less than four roads to Yong-wol, including the customary route, and the Englishman had only selected the one they were on at the last moment before starting—after the arrival of Ling from the ship, in fact; so that, unless Ling had arranged to have messengers waiting for him ashore, and had found means to communicate with them—which Frobisher could scarcely believe possible—the route they were taking could hardly have leaked out. He therefore made up his mind to stand by his original plan; and, the men having finished their meal, he gave orders for the caravan to proceed, himself leading the way and keeping a sharp look-out for any sign of treachery on the part of the Korean.