INDISCREET LETTERS FROM PEKING
Being the Notes of an Eye-Witness, Which Set Forth in Some Detail, from Day to Day, the Real Story of the Siege and Sack of a Distressed Capital in 1900—the Year of Great Tribulation
B.L. PUTNAM WEALE
Author of "Manchu and Muscovite," and "The Re-shaping of the Far East."
Shanghai Kelly and Walsh, Limited British Empire and Continental Copyright Excepting Scandinavian Countries by Putnam Weale from 1921
PART I—THE WARNING
I FRAGMENTS II MUTTERINGS III OVERCAST SKIES IV OUR GUARDS ARRIVE V THE PLOT THICKENS VI THE LICKING FLAMES APPROACH VII THE CITY OF PEKING AND ALL ITS GLORIES VIII SOME INCIDENTS AND THE ONE MAN IX THE COMING OF THE BOXERS X BARRICADES AND RELIEFS XI SOME MEN AND THINGS XII HELL HOUNDS XIII A FEW CRUMBS XIV THE ULTIMATUM XV THE DEBACLE BEGINS
PART II—THE SIEGE
I CHAOS II THE RETREAT AND THE RETURN III FIRES AND FOOD IV THE BONDS TIGHTEN V THE MYSTERIOUS BOARD OF TRUCE VI SHELLS AND SORTIES VII THE HOSPITAL AND THE GRAVEYARD VIII THE FAILURE IX AN INTERLUDE X THE GUNS XI SNIPING XII THE GALLANT FRENCH XIII THE BRITISH LEGATION BASE XIV THE EVER-GROWING CASUALTY LIST XV THE ARMISTICE XVI THE RESUMPTION OF A SEMI-DIPLOMATIC LIFE XVII DIPLOMACY CONTINUES XVIII THE UNREST GROWS AND DIPLOMACY CONTINUES XIX THE FIRST REAL NEWS XX THE THIRD PHASE CONTINUES XXI MORE DIPLOMACY XXII THE WORLD BEYOND OUR BRICKS XXIII TRIFLES XXIV DIPLOMATIC CONFIDENCES XXV THE PLOT AGAIN THICKENS XXVI MORE MESSENGERS XXVII THE ATTACKS RESUMED XXVIII THE THIRTEENTH XXIX THE NIGHT OF THE THIRTEENTH XXX HOW I SAW THE RELIEF
PART III-THE SACK
I THE PALACE II THE SACK III THE SACK CONTINUES IV CHAOS V SETTLING DOWN VI THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT VII THE FEW REMAINS VIII THE PALSY REMAINS IX DRIFTING X PICKING UP THREADS XI THE IMPOSSIBLE XII SUSPENSE XIII STILL DRIFTING XIV PUNITIVE EXPEDITIONS XV THE CLIMAX XVI THE END
The publication of these letters, dealing with the startling events which took place in Peking during the summer and autumn of 1900, at this late date may be justified on a number of counts. In the first place, there can be but little doubt that an exact narrative from the pen of an eye-witness who saw everything, and knew exactly what was going on from day to day, and even from hour to hour, in the diplomatic world of the Chinese capital during the deplorable times when the dread Boxer movement overcast everything so much that even in England the South African War was temporarily forgotten, is of intense human interest, showing most clearly as it does, perhaps for the first time in realistic fashion, the extraordinary bouleversement which overcame everyone; the unpreparedness and the panic when there was really ample warning; the rivalry of the warring Legations even when they were almost in extremis, and the curious course of the whole seige itself owing to the division of counsels among the Chinese—this last a state of affairs which alone saved everyone from a shameful death. In the second place, this account may dispel many false ideas which still obtain in Europe and America regarding the position of various Powers in China—ideas based on data which have long been declared of no value by those competent to judge. In the third place, the vivid and terrible description of the sack of Peking by the soldiery of Europe, showing the demoralisation into which all troops fall as soon as the iron hand of discipline is relaxed, may set finally at rest the mutual recriminations which have since been levelled publicly and privately. Everybody was tarred with the same brush. Those arm-chair critics who have been too prone to state that brutalities no longer mark the course of war may reconsider their words, and remember that sacking, with all the accompanying excesses, is still regarded as the divine right of soldiery unless the provost-marshal's gallows stand ready. In the fourth place, those who still believe that the representatives assigned to Eastern countries need only be second-rate men—reserving for Europe the master-minds—may begin to ask themselves seriously whether the time has not come when only the most capable and brilliant diplomatic officials—men whose intelligence will help to shape events and not be led by them, and who will act with iron firmness when the time for such action comes—should be assigned to such a difficult post as Peking. In the fifth place, the strange idea, which refuses to be eradicated, that the Chinese showed themselves in this Peking seige once and for all incompetent to carry to fruition any military plan, may be somewhat corrected by the plain and convincing terms in which the eye-witness describes the manner in which they stayed their hand whenever it could have slain, and the silent struggle which the Moderates of Chinese politics must have waged to avert the catastrophe by merely gaining time and allowing the Desperates to dash themselves to pieces when the inevitable swing of the pendulum took place. Finally, it will not escape notice that many remarks borne out all through the narrative tend to show that British diplomacy in the Far East was at one time at a low ebb.
Of course the Peking seige has already been amply described in many volumes and much magazine literature. Dr. Morrison, the famous Peking correspondent of the Times, informs me that he has in his library no less than forty-three accounts in English alone. The majority of these, however, are not as complete or enlightening as they might be; nor has the extraordinarily dramatic nature of the Warning, the Siege, and the Sack been shown. Thus few people, outside of a small circle in the Far East, have been able to understand from such accounts what actually occurred in Peking, or to realise the nature of the fighting which took place. The two best accounts, Dr. Morrison's own statement and the French Minister's graphic report-to his government, were both written rather to fix the principal events immediately after they had occurred than to attempt to probe beneath the surface, or to deal with the strictly personal or private side. Nor did they embrace that most remarkable portion of the Boxer year, the entire sack of Peking and the extraordinary scenes which marked this latter-day Vandalism. A veil has been habitually drawn over these little-known events, but in the narrative which follows it is boldly lifted for the first time.
The eye-witness whose account follows was careful to establish with as much lucidity as possible each phase of existence during five months of extraordinary interest. Much in these notes has had to be suppressed for many reasons, and much that remains may create some astonishment. Yet it is well to remember that "one eye-witness, however dull and prejudiced, is worth a wilderness of sentimental historians." The historians are already beginning to arise; these pages may serve as a corrective to many erroneous ideas. Perhaps some also will allow that this curious tragedy, swept into Peking and playing madly round the entrenched European Legations, has intense human interest still. The vague terror which oppressed everyone before the storm actually burst; the manner in which the feeble chain of fighting men were locked round the European lines, and suffered grievously but were providentially saved from annihilation; the curious way in which diplomacy made itself felt from time to time only to disappear as the rude shock of events taking place near Tientsin and the sea were reflected in Peking; the final coming of the strange relief—all these points and many others are made in such a manner that everyone should be able to understand and to believe. The description of the last act of the upheaval—the complete sack of Peking—shows clearly how the lust for loot gains all men, and hand in hand invites such terrible things as wholesale rape and murder.
The eye-witness attempts to account for all that happened; to make real and living the hoarse roll of musketry, the savage cries of desperadoes stripped to the waist and glistening in their sweat; to give echo to the blood-curdling notes of Chinese trumpets; to limn the tall mountains of flames licking sky high. If there is failure in these efforts, it is due to the editing.
The summer of 1900 in Peking will ever remain as famous in the annals of the world's history as the Indian Mutiny; it was something unique and unparalleled. With the curious movements now at work in the Far East, it may not be unwise to study the story again. And after Port Arthur these pages may show something about which little has been written—the psychology of the seige. The seige is still the rudest test in the world. It is well to know it.
B. L. PUTNAM WEALE.
CHINA, June, 1906.
INDISCREET LETTERS FROM PEKING
PART I—THE WARNING
12th May, 1900.
* * * * *
The weather is becoming hot, even here in latitude 40 and in the month of May. The Peking dust, distinguished among all the dusts of the earth for its blackness, its disagreeable insistence in sticking to one's clothes, one's hair, one's very eyebrows, until a grey-brown coating its visible to every eye, is rising in heavier clouds than ever. In the market-places, and near the great gates of the city, where Peking carts and camels from beyond the passes—k'ou wai, to use the correct vernacular—jostle one another, the dust has become damnable beyond words, and there can be no health possibly in us. The Peking dust rises, therefore, in clouds and obscures the very sun at times; for the sun always shines here in our Northern China, except during a brief summer rainy season, and a few other days you can count on your fingers. The dust is without significance, you will say, since it is always there more or less. It is in any case—healthy; it chokes you, but is reputed also to choke germs; therefore it is good. All of which is true, only this year there is more of it than ever, meaning very dry weather indeed for this city, hanging near the gates of Mongolian deserts—a dry weather spelling the devil for the Northern farmer.
Meanwhile, is there anything special for me to chronicle? Not much, although there is a cloud no bigger than your hand in Shantung not a thousand miles from Weihaiwei, and the German Legation is consequently somewhat irate. It was noticed at our club, for instance, which, by the way, is a humble affair, that the German military attache, a gentleman who wears bracelets, is somewhat effeminate, and plays vile tennis and worse billiards, had a "hostile attitude" towards the British Legation—that is, such of the British Legation as gather together each day at the "ice-shed"—which happens to be the club's peculiar Chinese name. The military attache is somewhat irate, because the spectacle of the Weihaiwei regiment, six hundred yellow men under twelve white Englishmen, chasing malcontents in Shantung, is derogatory to Teutonic aspirations. Germany has earmarked Shantung, and it is just like English bluntness to remind the would-be dominant Power that there is a British sphere and a British colony in the Chinese province, as well as a German sphere and a German colony. But the German Minister, a beau garcon with blue eyes and a handsome moustache, says nothing, and is quite calm.
Meanwhile the cloud no bigger than your hand is quite unremarked by the rank and file of Legation Street—that I will swear. Chinese malcontents—"the Society of Harmonious Fists," particular habitat Shantung province—are casually mentioned; but it is remembered that the provincial governor of Shantung is a strong Chinaman, one Yuan Shih-kai, who has some knowledge of military matters, and, better still, ten thousand foreign-drilled troops. Shantung is all right, never fear—such is the comment of the day.
But the political situation—the situation politique as we call it in our several conversations, which always have a diplomatic turn—although not grave, is unhappy; everybody at least acknowledges that. Peking has never been what it was before the Japanese war. In the old days we were all something of a happy family. There were merely the eleven Legations, the Inspectorate of Chinese Customs, with the aged Sir R—— H—— at its head, and perhaps a few favoured globe-trotters or nondescripts looking for rich concessions. Picnics and dinners, races and excursions, were the order of the day, and politics and political situations were not burning. Ministers plenipotentiary and envoys extraordinary wore Terai hats, very old clothes, and had an affable air—something like what Teheran must still be. Then came the Japanese war, and the eternal political situation. Russia started the ball rolling and the others kicked it along. The Russo-Chinese Bank, appeared on the scenes led by the great P——, a man with an ominous black portfolio continually under his arm, as he hurried along Legation Street, and an intriguing expression always on his dark face—a veritable master of men and moneys, they say. This intriguing soon found Expression in the Cassini Convention, denounced as untrue, and followed by a perfectly open and frank Manchurian railway convention, a convention which, in spite of its frankness, had future trouble written unmistakably on the face of it. Besides these things there were always ominous reports of other things—of great things being done secretly.
After the Russo-Chinese Bank and the Manchurian railway business, there was the Kiaochow affair, then the Port Arthur affair, the Weihaiwei and Kwangchowwan affairs, nothing but "affairs" all tending in the same direction—the making of a very grave political situation. The juniors to-day make fun of it, it is true, and greet each other daily with the salutation, "La situation politique est tres grave," and laugh at the good words. But it is grave notwithstanding the laughter. Once in 1899, after the Empress Dowager's coup d'etat and the virtual imprisonment of the Emperor, Legation Guards had to be sent for, a few files for each of the Legations that possess squadrons in the Far East, and, what is more, these guards had to stay for a good many months. The guards are now no more, but it is curious that the men they came mainly to protect us against—Tung Fu-hsiang's Mohammedan braves from the savage back province of Kansu who love the reactionary Empress Dowager—are still encamped near the Northern capital.
The old Peking society has therefore vanished, and in its place are highly suspicious and hostile Legations—Legations petty in their conceptions of men and things—Legations bitterly disliking one another—in fact, Legations richly deserving all they get, some of the cynics say.
The Peking air, as I have already said, is highly electrical and unpleasant in these hot spring days with the dust rising in heavy clouds. Squabbling and cantankerous, rather absurd and petty, the Legations are spinning their little threads, each one hedged in by high walls in its own compound and by the debatable question of the situation politique.
Outside and around us roars the noise of the Tartar city. At night the noise ceases, for the inner and outer cities are closed to one another by great gates; but at midnight the gates are opened by sleepy Manchu guards for a brief ten minutes, so that gorgeous red and blue-trapped carts, drawn by sleek mules, may speed into the Imperial City for the Daybreak Audience with the Throne. These conveyances contain the high officials of the Empire. It has been noticed by a Legation stroller on the Wall—the Tartar Wall—that the number of carts passing in at midnight is far greater than usual; that the guards of the city gates now and again stop and question a driver. It is nothing.
Meanwhile the dust rises in clouds. It is very dry this year—that is all.
24th May, 1900.
* * * * *
We are beginning to call them Boxers—grudgingly and sometimes harking back and giving them their full name, "Society of Harmonious Fists," or the "Righteous Harmony Fist Society"; but still a beginning has been made, and they are becoming Boxers by the inevitable process of shortening which distinguishes speech.
have been talking about them a good deal to-day, these Boxers, since it has been the birthday of her most excellent Majesty Queen Victoria, and the British Legation has been en fete. Her Majesty's Minister, in fine, has been entertaining us in the vast and princely gardens of the British Legation at his own expense. Weird Chinese lanterns have been lighted in the evening and slung around the grounds; champagne has been flowing with what effervescence it could muster; the eleven Legations and the nondescripts have forgotten their cares for a brief space and have been enjoying the evening air and the music of Sir R—— H——'s Chinese band. Looking at lighted lanterns, drinking champagne cup, listening to a Chinese band—where the devil is the protocol and the political situation, you will say? Not quite forgotten, since the French Minister attracted the attention of many all the evening by his vehement manner. I pushed up once, too, and with a polite bow listened to what he was saying. Ah, the old words, the eternal words, the political situation, or the situation politique, whichever way you like to use them. But still you listen a bit, for it is droll to hear the yet unaccustomed word Boxers in French. "Les Boxeurs," he says; and what the French Minister says is always worth listening to, since he has the best Intelligence corps in the world—the Catholic priests of China—at his disposal.
Curiously enough, he was speaking of the arch-priest of priests, renowned above all others in this Peking world, Monseigneur F——, Vicar Apostolic of the Manchu capital—almost Vicar of God to countless thousands of dark-yellow converts. It is Monseigneur F——'s letter of the 19th May, written but five days ago, and already locally famous through leakage, which was the subject-matter of his impromptu oration. Monseigneur F—— wrote and demanded a guard of marines for his cathedral, his people and his chattels—quarante ou cinquante marins pour proteger nos personnes et nos biens, were his exact words, and his request has been cruelly refused by the Council of Ministers on the ground that it is absurd. The Vicar Apostolic, however, gave his grounds for making such a demand calmly and logically—depicted the damage already done by an anti-foreign and revolutionary movement in the districts not a thousand miles from Peking, and solemnly forecasted what was soon to happen....
The French Minister was irate and raised his fat hands above his fat person, took a discreet look around him, and then hinted that it was this Legation, the British Legation, which stopped the marines from coming.
The French Minister was quite irate, and after his discourse was ended he slipped quietly away—possibly to send some more telegrams. The crumbs of his conversation were soon gathered up and distributed and the conviviality somewhat damped. As yet, however, the Boxers are only laughed at and are not taken quite seriously. They have killed native Christians, it is true, and it has been proved conclusively now that it was they who murdered Brooks, the English missionary in Shantung. But Englishmen are cheap, since there is a glut in the home market, and their government merely gets angry with them when they get into trouble and are killed. So many are always getting killed in China.
So the Boxers, with half the governments of Europe, led by England, as we know by our telegrams, seeking to minimise their importance—in fact, trying to stifle the movement by ignoring it or lavishing on it their supreme contempt—have already moved from their particular habitat, which is Shantung, into the metropolitan province of Chihli. Already they are in some force at Chochou, only seventy miles to the southeast of Peking—always massacring, always advancing, and driving in bodies of native Christians before them on their march. Nobody cares very much, however, except a vicar apostolic, who urgently requests forty or fifty marines or sailors "to protect our persons and our chattels." Foolish bishop he is, is he not, when Christians have been expressly born to be massacred? Does he not know his history?
Lead on, blind ministers plenipotentiary and envoys extraordinary; lead on, with your eternal political situations in embryo, your eternal political situations that have not yet hatched out; while one that is more pregnant than any you have ever conceived is already born under your very noses and is being sniffed at by you. But no matter what happens outside, Peking is safe, that is your dictum, and the dictum of the day. So, yawning and somewhat tired of the evening's convivialities, we go our several ways home, in our Peking carts and our official chairs, and are soon lost in sleep—dreaming, perhaps, that we have been too long in this dry Northern climate, and that it is really affecting one's nerves.
28th May, 1900.
* * * * *
It is only four days since we discussed the Vicar Apostolic's letter, and laughed somewhat at French excitability; but in four days what a change! The cloud no bigger than your hand is now bigger than your whole body, bigger, indeed, than the combined bodies of all your neighbours, supposing you could spread them fantastically in great layers across the skies. What, then, has happened?
It is that the Boxers, christened by us, as you will remember, but two or three short weeks ago, have blossomed forth with such fierce growth that they have become the men of the hour to the exclusion of everything else, and were one to believe one tithe of the talk babbling all around, the whole earth is shaking with them. Yet it is a very local affair—a thing concerning only a tiny portion of a half-known corner of the world. But for us it is sufficiently grave. The Peking-Paotingfu railway is being rapidly destroyed; Fentai station, but six miles from Peking—think of it, only six miles from this Manchu holy of holies—has gone up in flames; a great steel bridge has succumbed to the destroying energy of dynamite. All the European engineers have fled into Peking; and, worst of all, the Boxer banners have been unfurled; and lo and behold, as they floated in the breeze, the four dread characters, "Pao Ch'ing Mien Yang," have been read on blood-red bunting—"Death and destruction to the foreigner and all his works and loyal support to the great Ching dynasty."
Is that sufficiently enthralling, or should I add that the invulnerability of the Boxer has been officially and indisputably tested by the Manchus, according to the gossip of the day? Proceeding to the Boxer camp at Chochou, duly authorised officers of the Crown have seen recruits, who have performed all the dread rites, and are initiated, stand fearlessly in front of a full-fledged Boxer; have seen that Boxer load up his blunderbuss with powder, ramming down a wad on top; have witnessed a handful of iron buckshot added, but with no wad to hold the charge in place; have noticed that the master Boxer gesticulated with his lethal weapon the better to impress his audience before he fired, but have not noticed that the iron buckshot tripped merrily out of the rusty barrel since no wad held it in place; and finally, when the fire-piece belched forth flames and ear-breaking noise at a distance of a man's body from the recruit's person, they have seen, and with them thousands of others, that no harm came. It is astounding, miraculous, but it is true; henceforth, the Boxer is officially invulnerable and must remain so as long as the ground is parched. That is what our Chinese reports say.
There are myriads of men already in camp and myriads more speeding on their way to this Chochou camp of camps, while in village and hamlet local committees of public safety against the accursed foreigner and all his works are being quite naturally evolved, and red cloth—that sign manual of revolt—is already at a premium. The whole-province of Chihli is shaking; North China will soon be in flames; any one with half a nose can smell rebellion in the air....
This is one side of the picture, the side which friendly Chinese are painting for us. Yet when you glance at the eleven Legations, placidly living their own little lives, you will see them cynically listening to these old women's tales, while at heart they secretly wonder what political capital each of them can separately make out of the whole business, so that their governments may know that Peking has clever diplomats. Clever diplomats! There have been no clever diplomats in Peking since G—— of the French Legation took his departure, and that purring Slav P—— went to Seoul.
Of course Peking is safe, that goes without saying; but merely because there are foolish women and children, some nondescripts, and a good many missionaries, we will order a few guards. This, at least, has just been decided by the Council of Ministers—a rather foolish council, without backbone, excepting one man. All the afternoon everybody was occupied in telegraphing the orders and reports of the day, and these actions are now beyond recall.
Guards have been ordered from the ships lying out at the Taku bar. The guards will soon be here, and when they have come the movement will cease. Thus have the eleven Legations spoken, each telegraphing a different tale to its government, and each more than annoyed by this joint action. Incidentally each one is secretly wondering what is going to happen, and whether there is really any danger.
It has been directly telegraphed from London by Her Majesty's Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Lord Salisbury, so gossip says, that as quite enough has been heard of this Boxer business it must cease at once. Is not the South African War still proceeding, and has England not enough troubles without this additional one? It is almost pathetic, this peremptory order from a vacillating Foreign Office that never knows its own mind—this Canute-like bidding of the angry waves of human men to stand still at once and be no more heard of. People in Europe will never quite understand the East, for the East is ruled by things which are impossible in a temperate climate.
Meanwhile, in the Palace, whose pink walls we see blinking at us in the sun just beyond Legation Street, all is also topsy-turvy, the Chinese reports say. The Empress Dowager, shrewdly listening to this person and that, must feel in her own bones that it is a bad business, and that it will not end well, for she understands dynastic disasters uncommonly well. She has sent again and again for P'i Hsiao-li, "Cobbler's-wax" Li, as he is called, the reputed false eunuch who is master of her inner counsels, if Chinese small talk is to be believed. The eunuch Li has been told earnestly to find out the truth and nothing but the truth. A passionate old woman, this Empress Dowager of China, a veritable Catherine of Russia in her younger days they say, with her hot Manchu blood and her lust for ruling men. "Cobbler's-wax" Li, son of a cobbler and falsely emasculated, they say, so that he might become an eunuch of the Palace, from which lowly estate he has blossomed into the real power behind the Throne, hastens off once more to the palace of Prince Tuan, the father of the titular heir-apparent. As Prince Tuan's discretion has long since been cast to the winds, and Lao t'uan-yeh, or spiritual Boxer chiefs, now sit at the princely banqueting tables discussing the terms on which they will rush the Tartar city with their flags unfurled and their yelling forces behind them, a foolish and irresolute government, made up of the most diverse elements, and a rouge-smirched Empress Dowager, will then have to side with them or be begulfed too. Anxiously listening, "Cobbler's-wax" Li weights the odds, for no fool is this false eunuch, who through his manly charms leads an Empress who in turn leads an empire. Half suspicious and wholly unconvinced, he questions and demands the exact number of invulnerables that can be placed in line; and is forthwith assured, with braggart Chinese choruses, that they are as locusts, that the whole earth swarms with them, that the movement is unconquerable. Still unconvinced, the false eunuch takes his departure, and then the Throne decrees and counter decrees in agonised Edicts. It is noticed, too, that the distributors of the official organ, the Peking Gazette, no longer staidly walk their rounds, pausing to gossip with their friends, but run with their wooden-block printed Edicts wet from the presses, and shout indiscreetly to the passers-by, "Aside, our business is important." In all faith there is something in this movement. It is also noticed that roughness and rudeness are growing in the streets; little things that are always the precursors of the coming storm in the East are freely indulged in, and "foreign devil" is now almost a chorus. The atmosphere is obviously unwholesome, but guards have been ordered and it will soon be well. All these other things of which I speak are merely native reports....
Meanwhile each Legation does not forget its dignity, but walks stolidly alone. Alone in front of the French Legation is there some commotion almost hourly. It is, however, only the arrival and departure of Catholic priests posting to and from the Pei-t'ang about that little business of forty or fifty marines pour proteger nos personnes et nos biens, that is all. A singularly importunate fellow this Monseigneur F——, our most reverend Vicar Apostolic of the Manchu capital.
OUR GUARDS ARRIVE
31st May, 1900.
* * * * *
We had been dining out, a number of us, this evening, with result that the good wine and the good fare, for the Peking markets are admirable, left us reasonably content and in quite a valorous spirit. The party I was at was neither very large nor very small; we were eighteen, to be exact, and the political situation was represented in all its gravity by the presence of a Minister and his spouse. The former has always been pessimistic, and so we had Boxers for soup, Boxers with the entrees, and Boxers to the end. In fact, if the truth be told, the Boxers surrounded us in a constant vapour of words so formidable that one might well have reason to be alarmed. P——, the Minister, was, indeed, very talkative and gesticulative; his wife was sad and sighed constantly—elle poussait des soupirs tristes—at the lurid spectacle her husband's words conjured up. According to him, anything was possible. There might be sudden massacres in Peking itself—the Chinese Government had gone mad. Rendered more and more talkative by the wine and the good fare, he became alarming, menacing in the end. But we became more and more valiant as we ate and drank. That is always so.
It was all the guards' fault. Telegrams despatched in the morning from Tientsin distinctly told us that the guards were entraining; later news said the guards had actually started; and yet when we were almost through dinner, and it was nearly ten o'clock, there was not a sign of them. That was the distressing point, and in the end, as it thrust itself more and more on people's attention, the first great valour began to ooze. For although the Guardian of the Nine Gates—a species of Manchu warden or grand constable of Peking—has been officially warned that foreign guards, whose arrival has been duly authorised by the Tsung-li Yamen, may be a little late and that consequently the Ch'ien Men, or the Middle Gate, should be kept open a couple of hours longer, the chief guardian may become nervous and irate and incontinently shut the gates. This alone might provoke an outbreak.
This train of thought once started, we busily followed it up, and soon all the wives were sighing in unison more heavily than ever. I shall always remember what happened at that psychological moment. A strip of red-lined native writing-paper was placed in somebody's hands with a long list of the different detachments which had just passed in through the Main Gate. At last the guards had arrived. Speedily we became very valorous again. P—— afterwards said that he knew something which he had not dared to tell any one—not even his secretaries.
From this little list, it was soon clear that the British, French, Russian, American, Italian, and Japanese detachments had arrived. The Germans and the Austrians were missing, but we concluded that they would arrive by another train within very few hours. The important point was that men had been allowed to come through—that the Chinese Government, in spite of its enormous capacity for mischief, could not yet have made up its mind how to act. That consoled us.
After this, a faint-hearted attempt was made to continue our talk. But it was no good. We soon discovered that each one of us had been simulating a false interest in our never-ending discussion. We really wished to see with our own eyes these Legation Guards who might still save the situation.
Strolling out in the warm night, just as we were, we first came on them in the French Legation. The French detachment were merely sailors belonging to what they call their Compagnies de debarquement, and they were all brushing each other down and cursing the sacree poussiere. Such a leading motif has this Peking dust become that the very sailors notice it. Also we found two priests from Monseigneur F——'s Cathedral, sitting in the garden and patiently waiting for the Minister's return. I heard afterwards that they would not move until P—— decided that twenty-five sailors should march the next day to the Cathedral—in fact at daylight.
In all the Legations I found it was much the same thing—the men of the various detachments were brushing each other down and exchanging congratulations that they had been picked for Peking service. It was, perhaps, only because they were so glad to be allotted shore-duty after interminable service afloat off China's muddy coasts that they congratulated one another; but it might be also because they had heard tell throughout the fleets that the men who had come in '98, after the coup d'etat, had had the finest time which could be imagined—all loafing and no duties. They did not seem to understand or suspect....
I found later in the night that there had actually been a little trouble at the Tientsin station. The British had tried to get through a hundred marines instead of the maximum of seventy-five which had been agreed on. The Chinese authorities had then refused to let the train go, and although an English ship's captain had threatened to hang the station-master, in the end the point was won by the Chinese. By one or two in the morning everybody was very gay, walking about and having drinks with one another, and saying that it was all right now. Then it was that I remembered that it was already June—the historic month which has seen more crises than any other—and I became a little gloomy again. It was so terribly sultry and dry that it seemed as if anything could happen. I felt convinced that the guards were too few.
THE PLOT THICKENS
4th June, 1900.
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No matter in what light you look at it, you realise that somehow—in some wonderful, inexplicable manner—normal conditions have ceased long ago—in the month of May, I believe. The days, which a couple of weeks ago had but twenty-four hours, have now at least forty-two. You cannot exactly say why this strange state of affairs obtains, for as yet there is nothing very definite to fix upon, and you have absolutely no physical sensation of fear; but the mercury of both the barometer and the thermometer has been somehow badly shaken, and the mainsprings of all watches and clocks, although still much as the mainsprings of clocks and watches in other parts of the world—bringing your mind to bear on it you know they are exactly the same—are merely mechanism, and allow the day to have at least forty-two hours. It is strange, is it not, and you begin to understand vaguely some of the quite impossible Indian metaphysics which tell you gravely that what is, is not, and that what is not can still be.... In the crushing heat you can understand that.
Perhaps it is all because the hours are now split into ten separate and different parts by the fierce rumours which rage for a few minutes and then, dissipating their strength through their very violence, die away as suddenly as they came. The air is charged with electricity of human passions until it throbs painfully, and then.... You are merrily eating your tiffin or your dinner, and quite calmly cursing your "boy" because something is not properly iced. Your "boy," who is a Bannerman or Manchu and of Roman Catholic family, as are all servants of polite Peking society, does not move a muscle nor show any passing indignation, as he would were the ordinary rules and regulations of life still in existence. He, like everyone of the hundreds of thousands of Peking and the millions of North China, is waiting—waiting more patiently than impatient Westerners, but waiting just as anxiously; waiting with ear wide open to every rumour; waiting with an eye on every shadow—to know whether the storm is going to break or blow away. There is something disconcerting, startling, unseemly in being waited on by those who you know are in turn waiting on battle, murder, and sudden death. You feel that something may come suddenly at any moment, and though you do not dare to speak your thoughts to your neighbour, these thoughts are talking busily to you without a second's interruption. For if this storm truly comes, it must sweep everything before it and blot us all out in a horrible way. Our servants tell us so.
These servants of polite Peking society are favoured mortals, for they one and all are of the Eight Banners, direct descendants of the Manchu conquerors of China. And, strangely enough, although they are thus directly tied to the Manchu dynasty, and that some of them may be even Red Girdles or lineal descendants of collateral branches of the Imperial house, they are still more tightly tied to the foreigner because they are Roman Catholic dating from the early days of Verbiest and Schall, when the Jesuits were all supreme. On Sundays and feast days they all proceed to the Vicar Apostolic's own northern cathedral, and witness the Elevation of the Host to the discordant and strange sound of Chinese firecrackers, a curious accompaniment, indeed, permitted only by Catholic complacency. This they love more than the Throne.
Your Bannerman servant is now the medium of bringing in countless rumours which he barefacedly alleges are facts, and in impressing on you that everyone must certainly die unless we quickly act. The three Roman Catholic Cathedrals of Peking, placed at three points of the compass, are almost strategic centres surrounded by whole lanes and districts of Catholics captured to the tenets of Christ, or that portion deemed sufficient for yellow men, in ages gone by. Every household of these people during the past few weeks has seen fellow-religionists from the country places running in sorely distressed in body and mind, and but ill-equipped in money and means for this impromptu escape to the capital which everyone vainly hopes generally is to be a sanctuary. The refugees, it is true, do not receive all the sympathy they expect, for the Peking Catholic being the oldest and most mature in the eighteen provinces of China, holds his head very high, and "new people"—that is, those whose families have only been baptized, let us say, during the nineteenth century—are somewhat disdained. In a word, the Peking cathedrals and their Manchu and other adherents are the Blacks; and not even in papal Rome could this aristocracy in religion be excelled. But although the newcomers are disdained, their news is not. Everything they say is believed. The servants, therefore, browsing rumours wherever they go, bring back a curious hotchpotch after each separate excursion. Sometimes the balance swings this way, sometimes that; sometimes it is ominously black, sometimes only cloudy. You never know what it will be ten minutes hence, and you must content yourself as best you can. Your body-servant being a Bannerman (my particular one is a Manchu), and being reasonably young, is also a reservist of the Peking Field Force, and consorts with other Bannermen who may be actually on guard at one of the Palace gates. Who passes in and who passes out of the Palace now spreads like wildfire round the whole city, for the success of the Boxers will depend upon the support the Peking Government intends to give them when the worst comes to the worst. And the Peking Government is still fencing, because the Palace cannot make up its mind whether the time has really come when it must act. This lack of decision is fatal.
Late in the afternoon it transpired that the Empress Dowager was not in the Imperial city at all, but out at the Summer Palace on the Wan-shou-shan—the hills of ten thousand ages, as these are poetically called. Tung Fu-hsiang, whose ruffianly Kansu braves were marched out of the Chinese city—that is the outer ring of Peking—two nights before the Legation Guards came in, is also with the Empress, for his cavalry banners, made of black and blue velvet, with blood-red characters splashed splendidly across them, have been seen planted at the foot of the hills. Tung Fu-hsiang is an invincible one, who stamped out the Kansu rebellion a few years ago with such fierceness that his name strikes terror to-day into every Chinese heart. As for P'i Hsiao-li—the false eunuch—he is everywhere, they say, sometimes here, sometimes there, and quite defying search. The eunuch has a mighty fortune at stake, and all natives believe that he will betray himself. Half the pawnshops and banks of Peking belong to him, and he will not sacrifice his thirty million taels until he is convinced that his head is at stake. The Summer Palace lies but a dozen miles beyond Peking's embattled walls, and from the top, straining your eyes to the west, you can vaguely see the Empress's plaisaunce. A journey in and out is nothing by cart, and this favoured eunuch has the best mules in the Empire—black jennets fifteen hands high—and is using them night and day. And so everyone is asking again and again whether the Empress has arranged with Prince Tuan, since that is the burning question; and did this eunuch of eunuchs have his fateful confidential interview with the secret Boxer leaders, which was to decide finally on extermination.
The families of other palace eunuchs say yes, and the wife of one eunuch, living near the South Cathedral, is quite positive, my servants inform me. Wife of a eunuch, did I say? You will think me mad, but it is nevertheless true, for Chinese eunuchs have wives. Why have they wives, you will ask, since they are only half men, and cannot perform the duties of the male? Well, I can only answer as did my teacher once when I asked him years ago. "Eunuchs are still men," he said, smiling doubtfully, "insomuch as they like homes of their own beyond the Palace walls and desire children to play with. Since their wives can bear no children they buy children from poor people, and these duly become their own. Thus when the eunuch dies he has children to worship at his grave." In this land of mystery even eunuchs can correctly become ancestors. Yet this is a trivial detail which I should not speak of.
So the eunuch's wife living near the South Cathedral, who gossips with her Black Catholic neighbours, and whose gossip gives me news many times a day, avers most positively that the chief eunuch has been in town—that the whole matter has been decided—and that every foreigner will die. And very late in the evening my Manchu servant rushed in on me with his eyes sparkling strangely, and his voice so hoarse with excitement that he did not speak, but shout. "Master," he cried, "I have seen myself this time; three long carts full of swords and spears have passed in from the outer city through the Ha-ta Gate. The city guards stopped and questioned the drivers—then let them go. They had a pass from the Governor of Peking, and the people all say it is now coming." Now do you wonder about our clocks and our watches, and our time? Nothing can ever be normal again until this terrible question is solved.
THE LICKING FLAMES APPROACH
9th June 1900.
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It is getting desperate, of that there is now no shadow of doubt. The Tientsin trains that have been lately running more and more slowly and irregularly, as if they, too, were waiting on the pleasure of the coming storm, are going to run no more, and the odds are heavily against to-day's train ever reaching its destination. It is true these trains have long ceased running as far as we are personally concerned, for the weariness of living forty-two hours during twenty-four dulls one's perception of everything excepting one's immediate surroundings. And even one's surroundings are somehow shrinking until they will soon be but the four walls of a courtyard. But about the trains—why are they stopping? Because the licking flames are approaching so near that they will soon overwhelm all who are concerned with the running of trains unless they disappear very nimbly. One of the Chinese railway managers, an educated man in the Western sense who can quote Shakespeare, has been all over Legation Street yesterday and to-day, pointing out the hopelessness of the general position and almost openly urging the Legations to call on Europe to take steps. General Nieh, an intelligent general, with foreign-drilled troops, has indeed been fitfully ordered by Imperial Edict to "protect the railway," and to keep communication open, but this order has already come to nothing, and the position is worse than it was before. His troops, merely desirous of testing their brand-new Mausers, and as calmly cruel as only Easterns can be, did open a heavy fire a day or two ago on some Boxer marauders who had strayed into a station on the Tientsin-Peking line, and proposed to crucify the native station-master and beat all others, who were indirectly eating the foreign devils' rice by working on the railway, into lumps of jelly. General Nieh's men let their rifles crash off, not because their sympathies were against the Boxers, but probably because every living man armed with a rifle loves to fire at another living man when he can do so without harm to himself. This is my brutal explanation. But in any case these soldiers have now been marched off in semi-disgrace to their camp at Lutai, a few miles to the north of Tientsin, and told never to do such rash and indiscreet things again. That means the end of any attempts to control. For the Boxer partisans in Peking allege that the soldiers actually hit and killed a good many men, which is quite without precedent, and is upsetting all plans. On such occasions it is always understood that you fire a little in the air, warwhoop a good deal, and then come back quietly to camp with captured flags and banners as undeniable evidences of your victory. This has been the old method of making domestic war in China—the only one.
But all this is many miles from the sacred capital. The cry is still that we of Peking are safe, and that even if this is to be a true rebellion we cannot be hurt. The cry, however, is not so lusty as it was even three or four days ago, and, indeed, has only become an official cry—that is, one you are permitted to contradict privately when you meet your dear colleagues in the street and wonder aloud what is really going to happen. In the despatches Peking is still quite safe, although unwholesome. Yet our own private political situations, of which we were so proud and talked so vauntingly, have all now disappeared, miserable things, and are quite lost and forgotten. No one cares to talk about them. People merely say that all business is temporarily suspended; that we must wait and merely mark time.
But we discovered something worth knowing at the last moment to-day which is, without any doubt, true. The Empress Dowager returned to-day from the Summer Palace, and is now actually in the Forbidden City. We are at a loss to know exactly as yet what this means, and whether it is an augury of good or of bad. The Winter Palace is so near us; it is just to the west of us. The fact that the redoubtable Tung Fu-hsiang rode behind his Imperial mistress with his banner-bearers flaunting their colours and his trumpets blaring as loudly as possible is, however, not very reassuring. It seemed like defiance and treachery.
But at first, in spite of the Empress's entry, there were not many rumours accompanying her; in the late afternoon they came so thick and fast that no one had time to write them down. But of rumours we have had more than our bellyful. Let me tell some of the facts.
First and foremost. The racecourse grand-stand where less than a month ago we were all watching the struggles for victory between our various short-legged ponies, has gone up in flames and puff—just like that—the social battle-ground is no more. The Boxers, for everybody who does anything nowadays is a Boxer, tried to grill our official caretakers on the red-hot bricks, but the neighbouring village came to the rescue and shouted the marauders out of the place. That is the nearest danger which has been heard of. Immediately after this some Legation students, riding out on the sands under the Tartar Wall, were openly attacked by spear-armed men, and only escaped by galloping furiously and firing the revolvers which everyone now carries. Most important of all, however, to us is that aged Sir R—— H—— is hauling down his colours, and has been rapidly calling in all his scattered staff who live near the premises of the Tsung-li Yamen—China's Foreign Office. Here we are, the Legations of all Europe, with five hundred sailors and marines cleaning their rifles and marking out distances in the capital of a so-called friendly Power; with our pro forma despatches still being despatched while our real messages are frightened; attempting to weather a storm which the Chinese Government is powerless to arrest. The very passers-by are becoming sheep-eyed and are looking at us askance.
Passers-by, did I say? But do not imagine from this that there are many of these, for the Chinese have been for days avoiding the Legation quarter as if it were plague-stricken, and sounds that were so roaring a few weeks ago are now daily becoming more and more scarce. A blight is settling on us, for we are accursed by the whole population of North China, and who knows what will be the fate of those seen lurking near the foreigner?
And now when we wander even in our own streets—that is, those abutting immediately on our compounds of the Legation area—a new nickname salutes our ears. No longer are we mere yang kuei-tzu, foreign devils; we have risen to the proud estate of ta mao-tzu, or long-haired ones of the first class. Mao-tzu is a term of some contemptuous strength, since mao is the hair of animals, and our barbarian heads are not even shaved. The ta—great or first class—is also significant, because behind our own detested class press two others deserving of almost equal contempt at the hands of all believers in divine Boxerism. These are ehr-mao-tzu and san mao-tzu, second and third class coarse-haired ones. All good converts belong to the second class, and death awaits them, our servants say; while as to the third category, all having any sort of connection, direct or indirect with the foreigner and his works are lumped indiscriminately together in this one, and should be equally detested. The small talk of the tea-shops now even says that officials having a few sticks of European furniture in their houses are san mao-tzu. It is very significant, too, this open talk in the tea-shops, because in official Peking, the very centre of the enormous, loose-jointed Empire, political gossip is severely disliked and the four characters, "mo t'an kuo shih" (eschew political discussions), are skied in every public room. People in the old days of last month heeded this four-character warning, for a bambooing at the nearest police-station, ting erh, was always a possibility. Now everyone can do as he likes.
It is, therefore, becoming patent to the most blind that this is going to be something startling, something eclipsing any other anti-foreign movement ever heard of, because never before have the users of foreign imports and the mere friends of foreigners been labelled in a class just below that of the foreigners themselves. And then as it became dark to-day, a fresh wave of excitement broke over the city and produced almost a panic. The main body of Tung Fu-hsiang's savage Kansu braves—that is, his whole army—re-entered the capital and rapidly encamped on the open places in front of the Temples of Heaven and Agriculture in the outer ring of Peking. This settled it, I am glad to say. At last all the Legations shivered, and urgent telegrams were sent to the British admiral for reinforcements to be rushed up at all costs.
But too late—too late; the Manchu servants who have friends among the guards at the Palace gates have said this all the evening. For the Chinese Colossus, lumbering and lazy, sluggish and ill-equipped, has raised himself on his elbow, and with sheep-like and calculating eyes is looking down on us—a pigmy-like collection of foreigners and their guards—and soon will risk a kick—perhaps even will trample us quickly to pieces. How bitterly everyone is regretting our false confidence, and how our chiefs are being cursed!
THE CITY OF PEKING AND ALL ITS GLORIES
11th June, 1900.
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You do not know this Capital of Capitals, perhaps—that is, you do not know it as you should if the scenes which may presently move across the stage, now in shouting crowds of sword-armed men, now in pitiable incidents of small account, are to be properly understood, and their dramatic setting, stirring blood-thrilling, incongruous as they must be and can only be. I feel that something will come—I even know it. I have been talking vaguely about this and about that; have begun preparing colours, as it were, in the usual careless fashion without explanations or digressions—until you possibly wonder what it is all about. For you have not yet seen the barbaric frame which will hedge in the whole—the barbaric frame in all truth, since it is gradually closing in on us on every side until, like some mediaeval torture-room, we may have the very life crushed out of us by a cruel pressure. But enough of fine phrases; while there is time let me write something.
Peking is at least two thousand years old. Several hundred years before Christ, they say a Chinese kingdom made the present site the capital, and began building the outer walls; but the Chinese, the gentler Chinese who had all military spirit crushed out of them five thousand years before by having to tramp from Mesopotamia to where they now are in the eighteen provinces, these Chinese, I say, never had in Peking anything but a temporary trysting-place. For Peking stands for a sort of blatant barbarianism, mounted on sturdy ponies, pouring in from the far North; and the history of Peking can only be said to begin when Mongol-Tartars, who have always been freebooters and robbers, forced their way in and imposed their militarism on a nation of shopkeepers and collectors of taxes.
Even before the Christian era, the Chinese chronicles tell of the pressure of these fierce barbarians from the North being so much felt and their raids so constant, that Chi Huang-ti, the ruler of the powerful Chinese feudatory state which laid the foundations of the present Empire of China, began to build the Great Wall of China and to fortify old Peking as the only means of stopping these living waves. The Great Wall took ages to build, for the Northern barbarians always kept cunningly slipping round the uncompleted ends, and the Mings, the last purely Chinese sovereigns to reign in Peking, actually added three hundred miles to this colossal structure in the year 1547, or nearly two thousand years after the first bricks had been cemented. That shows you what people they were, and what the contest was.
For hundreds of years the war with the semi-nomadic hordes of the North continued. Sometimes isolated bands of Tartars broke through the Chinese defence and enslaved the people, but never for very long; instinctively by the use of every stratagem the cleverer Chinese compassed their destruction. While Attila and his Huns were ravaging Europe in the fifth century, other Hwingnoo, or Huns, veritable scourges of God, forced their way into China. In this fashion, while China itself was passing through a dozen different forms of government, and had a dozen capitals—sometimes owning allegiance to a single Emperor such as those of the T'ang dynasty who added Canton and the Cantonese to the Empire, sometimes split into petty kingdoms such as the "Ten States"—this curious frontier war continued and was handed down from father to son. Chinese industrialism and socialism, content to accept whatever form of government Chinese strong men succeeded in imposing, instinctively kept up an iron resistance to these Northern invaders. Such was the fear inspired, that a proverb coined thousands of years ago is still current. "Do not fear the cock from the South, but the wolf from the North," it says. Everybody is always quoting this saying. I have heard it twice to-day.
It was not until the tenth century that the Tartars finally broke through and established themselves definitively on Chinese soil. The Khitans, a Manchu-Tartar people, springing from Central Manchuria, then captured Peking and made it their capital. The Khitans were a cheerful people, with a peculiar sense of humour and a still greater conviction of the inferiority of women. To show their contempt for them, it is still recorded that they used to slit the back of their wives and drink their blood to give them strength. For two and a half centuries the Khitans, under the style of the Liao or Iron dynasty, maintained their position by the use of the sword, and then succumbing to the sapping influence of Chinese civilisation, they in turn were unable to resist a second Manchu-Mongol horde, the Kins. The Kins, under the style of the Silver dynasty, reigned in Northern China for a term of years, but there was nothing of a permanent character in their rule, since they were uncouth barbarians who soon drank themselves to death and destruction.
At the beginning of the thirteenth century Genghis Khan, the great Mongol, born in the bleak Hsing-an Mountains, gathered together all the restless bands of Mongolia, and sweeping down on Peking drove out the Kins and established the purely Mongol dynasty of the Yuan. Up till then Peking had consisted of what is to-day the Chinese city, or the older outer city. Kublai Khan, Genghis's grandson, fixed his residence definitively in Peking in 1264, and began building the Ta-tu, or Great Residence—the Tartar city of to-day. The Chinese city is oblong; the Tartar city is squat and square and overlaps and dominates the northern walls of the older city. Kublai Khan, by building the Tartar city on the northern edge of the Chinese city and fortifying it with immense strength, may be said to have fitted the spear-head on to the Chinese shaft, and to have given the key-note to the policy which exists to this day—the policy of the North of China dominating the South of China.
In time the Yuan dynasty of Mongols passed away—their strength sapped by confinement to walled cities because their power was only on the tented field. Ser Marco Polo, that audacious traveller, never tires of telling of the magnificence of the Mongol Khans and their resplendent courts. It requires no Marco Polo to assure us that the thirteenth century of the Far East was immeasurably in advance of the thirteenth century of Europe. The vast and magnificent works which remain to this day, weather-beaten though they be; the fierce reds, the wonderful greens, the boldness and size of everything, speak to us of an age which knew of mighty conquests of all Asia by invincible Mongol horsemen....
The Mongols were succeeded by the Mings—a purely Chinese house; but the Mings, in some terror of the rough North, since for over four centuries Tartars or Manchu-Mongols had been the overlords of China, discreetly established their capital on the Yangtsze and called it Nanking, or the Southern capital. It was only the third Emperor of the Mings who dared to remove the court to Peking. His choice was ill made for his dynasty, since a century and a half had hardly passed before fresh hordes—the modern Manchus—began to gather strength in the mountains and valleys to the northeast of Moukden. Fighting stubbornly, Nurhachu, the founder of this new enterprise, steadily broke through Chinese resistance in the Liaotung, then a Chinese province colonised from Chihli, and slowly but surely reached out towards Peking, the goal which beckons to everyone. The Great Wall, built eighteen hundred years before as a protection against other barbarians of the same stock, stopped Nurhachu a hundred times, and although he captured Moukden and made it a Manchu capital, he died worn out by half a century of warfare. His son, Tai Tsung, or Tien Tsung, nothing daunted, took up the struggle, and finding it impossible to break through the fortifications of the East, near Shan-hai-kwan, adopted Genghis Khan's route—the passes leading in from the great grassy plains of Mongolia many hundreds of miles to the West. Allying himself by marriage with Mongols, the Manchu monarch began a series of grand raids through their territory in the direction of Peking. Once he actually reached Peking and sat down in front of its mighty walls to besiege it. But he found his strength unequal to the task, and once more was forced to retire. Then this second Manchu prince died, and was succeeded by a tiny grandson of five. The regent appointed by the Manchu nobles owed his final success to the fact that he was called in by the Chinese generals commanding the coveted Shan-hai-kwan gates to rescue Peking from the hands of Chinese insurgents, who had everywhere arisen; and in 1644, after seventy years of warfare, the Manchus seated themselves on the Dragon Throne, in defiance of the wishes of the people, but backed up by a vast concourse of Manchus and Mongols, and half the fierce blades of Eastern Asia.
The history of all these centuries of warfare is eloquently written on all the buildings, the fortifications, the monuments, the palaces and temples of Peking which surround us. Peking is the Delhi of China, and the grave of warlike barbarians. Four separate times have Tartars broken in and founded dynasties, and four separate times have Chinese culture and civilisation sapped rugged strength, and made the rulers the de facto servants of the ceremonious inhabitants. In the Tartar city there are Yellow Lama temples, with hundreds of bare-pated lama priests, the results of Buddhist Concordats guaranteeing Thibetan semi-independence in return for a tacit acknowledgment of Chinese suzerainty. Near the Palace walls is a Mongolian Superintendency, where the Mongol hordes still grazing their herds and their flocks on the grassy plains of high Asia, as they have done for countless centuries, are divided up into Banners, or military divisions, showing the enormous strength in irregular cavalry they possessed two hundred and fifty years ago. Round the Forbidden City are the Six Boards and the Nine Ministries, the outward signs of those bonds of etiquette and procedure which bind the Manchu Throne to the eighteen provinces. The walls of the Tartar city heave up fifty feet in the air, and are forty feet thick. The circumference of the outer ring of fortifications is over twenty miles. Each gate is surmounted by a square three-storied tower or pagoda, vast and imposing. Round the city and through the city run century-old canals and moats with water-gates shutting down with cruel iron prongs. In the Chinese city the two Temples of Heaven and Agriculture raise their altars to the skies, invoking the help of the deities for this decaying but proud Chinese Empire. Think of the millions of dead hands that fashioned such enormous strength and old-time magnificence! On the corner of the Tartar Wall is the old Jesuit Observatory with beautiful dragon-adorned instruments of bronze given by a Louis of France. There are temples with yellow-gowned or grey-gowned priests in their hundreds founded in the times of Kublai Khan. There are Mohammedan mosques, with Chinese muezzins in blue turbans on feast days; Manchu palaces with vermillion-red pillars and archways and green and gold ceilings. There are unending lines of camels plodding slowly in from the Western deserts laden with all manner of merchandise; there are curious palanquins slung between two mules and escorted by sword-armed men that have journeyed all the way from Shansi and Kansu, which are a thousand miles away; a Mongol market with bare-pated and long-coated Mongols hawking venison and other products of their chase; comely Soochow harlots with reeking native scents rising from their hair; water-carriers and barbers from sturdy Shantung; cooks from epicurean Canton; bankers from Shansi—the whole Empire of China sending its best to its old-world barbaric capital, which has now no strength.
And right in the centre of it all is the Forbidden City, enclosing with its high pink walls the palaces which are full of warm-blooded Manchu concubines, sleek eunuchs who speak in wheedling tones, and is always hot with intrigue. At the gates of the Palace lounge bow and jingal-armed Imperial guards. Inside is the Son of Heaven himself, the Emperor imprisoned in his own Palace by the Empress Mother, who is as masterful as any man who ever lived....
I beg you, do you begin to see something of Peking and to understand the eleven miserable little Legations, each with its own particular ideas and intrigues, but crouching all together under the Tarter Wall and tremblingly awaiting with mock assurance the bursting of this storm? If you are so good as to see this you will realise the wonderful stage effects, the fierce Mediaevalism in senile decay, the superb distances, the red dust from the Gobi that has choked up all the drains and tarnished all the magnificence until it is no more magnificence at all—this dust which is such a herald of the coming storm—the new guns and pistols of Herr Krupp and the camels of the deserts and all the other things all mixed up together....
Oh, I see that we are absurd and can only be made more ridiculous by coming events. Of course the Boxers coming in openly through the gates cannot be true, and yet—shades of Genghis Khan and all his Tartars, what is that? When I had got as far as this from all sides came a tremendous blaring of barbaric trumpets—those long brass trumpets that can make one's blood curdle horribly, a blaring which has now upset everything I was about to write and also my inkpot. I rushed out to inquire; it was only a portion of the Manchu Peking Field Force marching home, but the sounds have unsettled us all again, and in the tumult of one's emotions one does not know what to believe and what to fear. Everything seems a little impossible and absurd, especially what I am now writing from hour to hour.
SOME INCIDENTS AND THE ONE MAN
12th June, 1900.
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Even the British Legation—"the stoical, sceptical, ill-informed British Legation," as S—— of the American Legation calls it—is wringing its hands with annoyance, and were it Italian, and therefore dramatically articulate, its curses and maladette would ascend to the very heavens in a menacing cloud like our Peking dust. For on England we have all been waiting because of an ancient prestige; and England, everyone says, is mainly responsible for our present plight. Everybody is lowering at England and the British Legation along Legation Street, because S—— was not sent for two weeks ago, and the language of the minor missions, who could not possibly expect to receive protecting guards unless they swam all the way from Europe, is sulphurous. They ask with much reason why we do not lead events instead of being lead by them; why are we so foolish, so confident. What has happened to justify all this, you will ask? Well, permit me to speak.
The day before yesterday several Englishmen rode down to the Machiapu railway station, which is just outside the Chinese city, and is our Peking station, to welcome, as they thought, Admiral S—— and his reinforcements, so despairingly telegraphed for by the British Legation just fourteen days later than should have been done. Their passage to the station was unmarked by incidents, excepting that they noted with apprehension the thickly clustering tents of Kansu soldiery in the open spaces fronting the vast Temples of Heaven and Agriculture. Once the station was reached a weary wait began, with nothing to relieve the tedium, for the vast crowds which usually surround the "fire-cart stopping-place," to translate the vernacular, all had disappeared, and in place of the former noisiness there was nothing but silence.
At last, somewhat downcast, our Englishmen were forced to return without a word of news, passing into the Chinese city when it was almost dusk. Alas! the Kansu soldiery, after the manner of all Celestials, were taking the air in the twilight; and no sooner did they spy the hated foreigner than hoots and curses rose louder and louder. The horsemen quickened their pace, stones flew, and had it not been for the presence of mind of one man they would have been torn to pieces. They left the great main street of the outer city in a tremendous uproar and seemed glad to be back among friends.
Yesterday, the 11th, it seemed absolutely certain S—— would arrive, since he must have left Tientsin on the 10th, and it is only ninety miles by rail. The Legations wished to despatch a messenger, but the Kansu soldiery on those open spaces were not attractive, and nobody was very anxious to brave them. Who was to go? No sooner was it mentioned in the Japanese Legation than, of course, a Japanese was found ready to go; in fact, several Japanese almost came to blows on the subject. Sugiyama, the chancelier, somehow managed to prove that he had the best right, and go he did, but never to return.
It was dark before his carter turned up in Legation Street, covered with dust and bespattered with blood, while I happened to be there. It was an ugly story he unfolded, and it is hardly good to tell it. On the open spaces facing the supplicating altars of Heaven and Agriculture this little Japanese, Sugiyama, met his death in a horrid way. The Kansu soldiery were waiting for more cursed foreigners to appear, and this time they had their arms with them and were determined to have blood. So they killed the Japanese brutally while he shielded himself with his small hands. They hacked off all his limbs, barbarians that they are, decapitated him, then mutilated his body. It now lies half-buried where it was smitten down. The carter who drove him was eloquent as only Orientals can be when tragedy flings their customary reserve aside: "May my tongue be torn out if I scatter falsehoods," he said again and again, using the customary phrase, as he showed how it all happened. And late into the night he was still reciting his story to fresh crowds of listeners, who gaped with terror and astonishment. Squatting in a great Peking courtyard on his hams and calling on the unseen powers to tear out his tongue if he lied, he was a figure of some moment, this Peking carter, for those that thought; for everybody realises that we are now caught and cannot be driven out....
This was the 11th. On the 12th, the day was still more startling, for somehow the shadow which has been lurking so near us seems to have been thrown more forward and become more intense. The hero of the affair is the one really brave man among our chiefs, of course—the Baron von K——, the Kaiser's Minister to the Court of Peking.
The Baron is no stranger in Peking, although he has been here but a twelvemonth in his new capacity as Minister. Fifteen years ago his handsome face charmed more than one fair lady in the old pre-political situation days, when there was plenty of time for picnics and love-making. Then he was only an irresponsible attache; now he is here as a very full-blooded plenipotentiary, with the burden of a special German political mission in China, bequeathed him by his pompous and mannerless predecessor, Baron von H——, to support. But a man is the present German Minister if there was ever one, and it was in the newly macadamised Legation Street that the incident I am about to relate occurred.
Walking out in the morning, the German Minister saw one of the ordinary hooded Peking carts trotting carelessly along, with the mule all ears, because the carter was urging him along with many digs near the tail. But it was not the cart, nor the carter, nor yet the mule, which attracted His Excellency's immediate attention, but the passenger seated on the customary place of the off-shaft. For a moment Baron von K—— could not believe his eyes. It was nothing less than a full-fledged Boxer with his hair tied up in red cloth, red ribbons round his wrists and ankles, and a flaming red girdle tightening his loose white tunic; and, to cap all, the man was audaciously and calmly sharpening a big carver knife on his boots! It was sublime insolence, riding down Legation Street like this in the full glare of day, with a knife and regalia proclaiming the dawn of Boxerism in the Capital of Capitals, and withal, was a very ugly sign. What did K—— do—go home and invite some one to write a despatch for him to his government deprecating the growth of the Boxer movement, and the impossibility of carrying out conciliatory instructions, as some of his colleagues, including my own chief, would have done? Not a bit of it! He tilted full at the man with his walking stick, and before he could escape had beaten a regular roll of kettledrums on his hide. Then the Boxer, after a short struggle, abandoned his knife, and ran with some fleetness of foot into a neighbouring lane. The gallant German Minister raised the hue and cry, and then discovered yet another Boxer inside the cart, whom he duly secured by falling on top of him; and this last one was handed over to his own Legation Guards. The fugitive was followed into Prince Su's grounds, which run right through the Legation area, and there cornered in a house. The mysterious Dr. M—— then suddenly appeared on the scenes and insisted upon searching the Manchu Prince's entire grounds and most private apartments. But time was wasted in pourparlers, and in spite of a minute inspection, which extended even to the concubine apartments, the Boxer vanished in some mysterious way like a breath, and is even now untraced. This shows us conclusively that there are accomplices right in our midst.
No sooner had this incident occurred and been bandied round with sundry exaggerations, than the life of the Legations and the nondescripts who have been coming in from the country became more abnormal than ever. For in spite of our extraordinary position, even up to to-day we were attempting to work—that is, writing three lines of a despatch, and then rushing madly out to hear the latest news. Now not so much as one word is written, and our eleven Legations are openly terribly perturbed in body and mind and conscious of their intense impotence, although we have all the so-called resources of diplomacy still at our command, and we are officially still on the friendliest terms with the Chinese Government.
This morning, the 12th, there was another commotion—this time in Customs Street, as it is called. Three more Boxers, armed with swords and followed by a crowd of loafers, fearful but curious, ran rapidly past the Post Office, which faces the Customs Inspectorate, and got into a small temple a few hundred feet away, where they began their incantations. It was decided to attack them only with riding-whips, so as to avoid drawing first blood. But when a party of us arrived, we could not get into their retreat, as they had barricaded themselves in. So marines and sailors were requisitioned with axes; after a lot of exhausting work it was discovered that the birds had flown. This was another proof that there is treachery among friendly natives, for without help these Boxers could never have escaped.
And now imagine our excitement and general perturbation. Since the 8th or 9th, I really forget which date, we have been acting on a more or less preconcerted plan—that is, as far as our defences are concerned, as we have been quite cut off from the outer world. The commanders of the British, American, German, French, Italian, Russian, Austrian and Japanese detachments have met and conferred—each carefully instructed by his own Minister just how far he is to acquiesce in his colleagues' proposals, which is, roughly speaking, not at all. We can have no effective council of war thus, because there is no commander-in-chief, and everybody is a claimant to the post. There is first an Austrian captain of a man-of-war lying off the Taku bar, who was merely up in Peking on a pleasure trip when he was caught by the storm, but this has not hindered him taking over command of the Austrian sailors from the lieutenant who brought them up; and everybody knows that a captain in the navy ranks with a colonel in the army. There are no military men in Peking excepting three captains of British marines, one Japanese lieutenant-colonel and his aide-de-camp, and some unimportant military attaches, who are very junior. So on paper the command should lie between two men—the Austrian naval captain and the Japanese lieutenant-colonel. But, then, the Japanese have instructions to follow the British lead, and the senior British marine captain has orders to follow, his own ideas, and his own ideas do not fancy the unattached Austrian captain of a man-of-war. So the concerted plan of defence has only been evolved very suddenly, a plan which has resolved itself naturally into each detachment-commander holding his own Legation as long as he could, and being vaguely linked to his neighbour by picquets of two or three men. But about this you will understand more later on. The point I wish you now to realise is that the counsels of the allied countries of Europe in the persons of their Legation Guards' commanders are as effective as those of very juvenile kindergartens. Everybody is intensely jealous of everybody else and determined not to give way on the question of the supreme command. Of course, if the storm comes suddenly, without any warning, we are doomed, because you cannot hold an area a mile square with a lot of men who are fighting among themselves, and who have fallen too quickly into our miserably petty Peking scheme of things.
THE COMING OF THE BOXERS
14th June, 1900.
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I had risen yesterday some what late in the day with the oddness and uncomfortableness—I do not mean discomfort—which comes from too much boots, too much disturbance of one's ordinary routine, too much listening to people airing their opinions and recounting rumours, and, last of all, very wearied by the uncustomary task of transporting a terrible battery of hand artillery (for we are at last all heavily armed); and consequent of these varied things, I, like everybody else, was a good deal out of temper and rather sick of it all. I began to ask myself this question: Were we really playing an immense comedy, or was there a great and terrible peril menacing us? I could never get beyond asking the question. I could not think sanely long enough for the answer.
The day passed slowly, and very late in the afternoon, when some of us had completed a tour of the Legations, and looked at their various picquets, I finished up at the Austrian Legation and the Customs Street. Men were everywhere sitting about, idly watching the dusty and deserted streets, half hoping that something was going to happen shortly, when suddenly there was a shout and a fierce running of feet. Something had happened.
We all jumped up as if we had been shot, for we had been sitting very democratically on the sidewalk, and round the corner, running with the speed of the scared, came a youthful English postal carrier. That was all at first.
But behind him were Chinese, and ponies and carts ridden or driven with recklessness that was amazing. The English youth had started gasping exclamations as he ran in, and tried to fetch his breath, when from the back of the Austrian Legation came a rapid roll of musketry. Austrian marines, who were spread-eagled along the roofs of their Legation residences, and on the top of the high surrounding wall, had evidently caught sight of the edge of an advancing storm, and were firing fiercely. We seized our rifles—everybody has been armed cap-a-pie for days—and in a disorderly crowd we ran down to the end of the great wall surrounding the Austrian compounds to view the broad street which runs towards the city gates. The firing ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and in its place arose a perfect storm of distant roaring and shouting. Soon we could see flames shooting up not more than half a mile from where we stood; but the intervening houses and trees, the din and the excitement, coupled with the stern order of an Austrian officer, shouted from the top of an outhouse, not to move as their machine-gun was coming into action over our heads, made it impossible for us to understand or move forward. What was it?
Presently somebody trotted up from behind us on a pony, and, waiting his opportunity, rode into the open, and with considerable skill seized a fleeing Chinaman by the neck. This prisoner was dragged in more dead than alive with fear, and he told us that all he knew was that as he had passed into the Tartar city through the Ha-ta Gate a quarter of an hour before, myriads of Boxers—those were his words—armed with swords and spears, and with their red sashes and insignia openly worn, had rushed into the Tartar city from the Chinese city, slashing and stabbing at everyone indiscriminately. The foreigners' guns had caught them, he said, and dusted them badly, and they were now running towards the north, setting fire to chapels and churches, and any evidences of the European they could find. He knew nothing more. We let our prisoner go, and no sooner had he disappeared than fresh waves of fugitives appeared sobbing and weeping with excitement. The Boxers, deflected from the Legation quarter, were spreading rapidly down the Ha-ta Great Street which runs due north, and everybody was fleeing west past our quarter. Never have I seen such fast galloping and driving in the Peking streets; never would I have believed that small-footed women, of whom there are a goodly number even in the large-footed Manchu city, could get so nimbly over the ground. Everybody was panic-stricken and distraught, and we could do nothing but look on. They went on running, running, running. Then the waves of men, women and animals disappeared as suddenly as they had come, and the roads became once again silent and deserted. Far away the din of the Boxers could still be heard, and flames shooting up to the skies now marked their track; but of the dreaded men themselves we had not seen a single one.
We had now time to breathe, and to run round making inquiries. We found the Italian picquet at the Ha-ta end of Legation Street nearly mad with excitement; the men were crimson and shouting at one another. But there was nothing new to learn. Bands of Boxers had passed the Italian line only eighty or a hundred yards off, and a number of dark spots on the ground testified to some slaughter by small-bore Mausers. They had been given a taste of our guns, that was all; and, fearing the worst, every able-bodied man in the Legations fell in at the prearranged posts and waited for fresh developments.
At eight o'clock, while we were hurriedly eating some food, word was passed that fires to the north and east were recommencing with renewed vigour. The Boxers, having passed two miles of neutral territory, had reached the belt of abandoned foreign houses and grounds belonging to the foreign Customs, to missionaries, and to some other people. Pillaging and burning and unopposed, they were spreading everywhere. Flames were now leaping up from a dozen different quarters, ever higher and higher. The night was inky black, and these points of fire, gathering strength as their progress was unchecked, soon met and formed a vast line of flame half a mile long. There is nothing which can make such a splendid but fearful spectacle as fire at night. The wind, which had been blowing gently from the north, veered to the east, as if the god's wished us to realise our plight; and on the breeze leading towards the Legations, some sound of the vast tumult and excitement was wafted to us. The whole city seemed now to be alive with hoarse noises, which spoke of the force of disorder unloosed. Orders for every man to stand by and for reinforcements to be massed near the Austrian quarter were issued, and impatient, yet impotent, we waited the upshot of it all. Chinese officialdom gave no sign; not a single word did or could the Chinese Government dare to send us. We were abandoned to our own resources, as was inevitable.
Suddenly a tremor passed over all who were watching the brilliant scene. The flames, which till then had been confined to a broad belt at least three thousand yards from our eastern picquets, began leaping up a mile nearer. The Boxers, having destroyed all the foreign houses in the Tsung-li Yamen quarter, were advancing up rapidly on the Tung T'ang—the Roman Catholic Eastern Cathedral, which was but fifteen minutes' walk from our lines. We knew that hundreds of native Christians lived around the cathedral, and that as soon as their lives were threatened they would at once seek refuge in their church, and we knew, also, what that would mean.
The roar increased in vigour, and then hundreds of torches, dancing like will-o'-the-wisps in front of our straining eyes, appeared far down the Wang-ta, or so-called Customs Street, which separates Sir R—— H——'s Inspectorate from the Austrian Legation. They were less than a thousand yards away. The Boxers, casting discretion to the winds, appeared to be once more advancing on the Legations. But then came a shout from the Austrian Legation, some hoarse cries in guttural German, and the big gates of the Legation were thrown open near us. The night was inky black, and you could see nothing. A confused banging of feet followed, then some more orders, and with a rattling of gun-wheels a machine-gun was run out and planted in the very centre of the street.
"At two thousand yards," sang out the naval lieutenant unexpectedly and jarringly as we stood watching, "slow fire."
I was surprised at such decision. Tang, tang, tang, tang, tang, spat the machine-gun in the black night, now rasping out bullets at the rate of three hundred a minute, as the gunner under the excitement of the hour and his surroundings forgot his instructions, now steadying to a slow second fire. This was something like a counter-excitement; we were beginning to speak at last. We were delighted. It was not so much the gun reports which thrilled us as the resonant echoes which, crackling like very dry fagots in a fierce fire as the bullets sped down the long, straight street, made us realise their destroying power. Have you ever heard a high-velocity machine-gun firing down deserted and gloomy thorough-fares? It crackles all over your body in electrical shocks as powerful as those of a galvanic battery; it stimulates the brain as nothing else can do; it is extraordinary.
The will-o'-the-wisp torches had stopped dancing forward now, but still they remained there, quite inexplicable in their fixity. We imagined that our five minutes' bombardment must have carried death and destruction to everyone and everything. And yet what did this mean? The flames, which had been licking round near the cathedral, suddenly burst up in a great pillar of fire. That was the answer; the cathedral was at last alight. At this we all gave a howl of rage, for we knew what that meant. The picquets had been mysteriously reinforced by Frenchmen, Englishmen, and men of half a dozen other nationalities, all chattering together in all the languages of Europe. "Que faire, que faire," somebody kept bawling. "Get your damned gun out of the way," shouted other angry voices, "and let us charge the beggars." But Captain T——, the Austrian commander, was already conferring with a dear colleague whom he had discovered in the dark. Even in this storm of excitement the protocol could not be forgotten. Marines, sailors, and Legation juniors groaned; was this opportunity to be missed? At last they arranged it; it should be a charge of volunteers.