UNDER THE DRAGON FLAG
My Experiences in the Chino-Japanese War
New York Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers
The following narrative is a record of my experiences during the late memorable war between China and Japan. Without going into any detailed account of my earlier life, some few facts concerning myself are probably necessary for the better understanding of the circumstances which led up to the events here presented. It will be obvious that I can make no claim to literary skill; I have simply written down my exact and unadorned remembrance of incidents which I witnessed and took part in. Now it is all over I wonder more and more at the slightness of the hazard which suddenly placed me at such a period in so strange an experience.
I am the son of a Lancashire gentleman who accumulated considerable wealth in the cotton trade. He died when I was still a boy. I found myself, when I came of age, the possessor of upwards of L80,000. Thus I started in life as a man of fortune; but it is due to myself to say that I took prompt and effectual measures to clear myself of that invidious character. Not to mince matters needlessly, I ran through that eighty thousand pounds in something short of four years. I was not in the least "horsey"; my sphere was the gaieties of Paris and the gaming-tables of Monte Carlo—a sphere which has made short work of fortunes compared with which mine would be insignificant. The pace was fast and furious; I threw out my ballast liberally as I went along, and the harpies, male and female, who surrounded me, picked it up. Bright and fair enough was the prospect as I started on the road to ruin; gloomy the clouds that settled round me as I approached that dismal terminus. Then, when too late, I began to regret my folly. I seemed to wake as if from a dream, from a state of helpless infatuation, in which my acts were scarcely the effect of my own volition. The general out-look became decidedly uninviting.
About eleven o'clock one spring night of the year 1892, I was standing close to the railings of the Whitworth Park in my native city of Manchester, to whose dull provincial shades I had retired at the enforced close of my creditable career. I remember that I was engaged in wondering what on earth I could have done with all my money, the only tangible return for which appeared to be an intimate and peculiar knowledge of the French language and of certain undesirable phases of French life. The hour, as I have said, was late, and Moss Lane, the street in which I stood disconsolate, dark and deserted. Presently there came along towards me a man whose uncertain gait was strongly suggestive of the influence of alcohol. He stopped upon reaching me, and asked if I could direct him to Victoria Park. This is an extensive semi-private enclosure, where numbers of the plutocracy of Cottonopolis have their residences. One of its several gates is nearly opposite the spot where Moss Lane leads into Oxford Street, which fact I communicated to my questioner. To my surprise he, by way of acknowledgment, struck his hand into mine and shook it fervently.
"Shake hands, shake hands," he said; "that's right—you're talking to a gentleman, though you mightn't think it."
I certainly should not have thought it. He was a short, thick-set man, of about five feet and two or three inches, shabbily dressed; and his unsteady lurch, swollen features, and odorous breath, told plainly of a heavy debauch. Amused by his manner, I entered into conversation with him. He was, it appeared, a sailor, a Lancashire man, and, if he was to be believed, very respectably connected in Manchester. I gathered that he had ended a boyhood of contumacy by running away to sea, his people, though they had practically disowned him, allowing him a pound a week. This allowance had for some time past been stopped, and he was coming up in person to investigate the why and wherefore. Having a week or two before come off a voyage at Liverpool, he had at that port drawn L75 in pay, which he had spent in two days and nights of revelry, an assertion to which his personal appearance bore strong corroborative testimony. He appeared, on the whole, to consider himself an exceedingly ill-used person. "I'm a houtcast," he repeatedly said. I asked him in what capacity he served on shipboard. "A.B.," he replied, "always A.B.;" and certainly, in speech and appearance, he seemed nothing better than a foremast man, although, shaking hands with me again and again, he each time asseverated that it was the hand of a gentleman. At length he went on his way, and I stood watching his receding figure as he reeled down the street. I was just turning away, when I heard a loud outcry; the "houtcast," about a hundred yards distant, was hailing me. On what trifles does destiny depend! My first impulse was to walk off without taking any notice of his shouts, and on the simple decision to stay and see what he wanted, turned the whole future. It appeared that whilst talking with me his obfuscated mind had lost the directions I had given him as to the locality of Victoria Park. Having nothing in particular to do, I volunteered to walk along with him, and keep him in the right direction, and accordingly we entered the park together. With considerable difficulty, he found out the road and house he was in search of; I doubt if, without my aid, he would have found it at all in his then condition. He had not, he informed me, been in Manchester for years, and those he was looking up had changed their residence. The exterior of the place, when found, seemed to bear out his statement as to the social position of his relatives. I asked him what sort of reception he thought he would get from them.
"He did not," he replied, "care a d——n what it might be, but he was going to see why they had stopped his quid, and no mistake about it."
He extended to me an invitation to come in with him "and have a drink," a courtesy which, needless to say, I declined. He then left me, after another vehement handshaking, and proceeded up the drive in front of the house. A feeling of curiosity to see what kind of greeting the drunken, wastrel "houtcast" would command from his folk, all unconscious of his disagreeable proximity to their eminently respectable residence, induced me to follow him. I paused at a point where, concealed by some shrubbery, I had a view of the hall door, which, upon my friend's ringing, was opened by a smart maid-servant. Swaying up and down on the steps in a most ludicrous manner, the "houtcast" addressed her, although I was too far off to make out the words, but to judge by her looks she felt no prepossession in his favour. After a while she went away, leaving the door open and him standing on the steps. In about a minute a stout, middle-aged gentleman appeared from the brightly-lighted hall, his whole aspect presenting the strongest possible contrast to that of the seedy mariner. The conference between them was brief and angry, and terminated with the gentleman's returning within and slamming the door in the other's face, who, with his hands in his pockets, stood for some time planted where he was, staring at the visage de bois as if dumfounded. Then he applied himself vigorously to the bell, and pulled with might and main. This course of treatment having no effect, he commenced shouting a series of objurgations much too vigorous to be here set down. No response, of course, was forthcoming, and at length the discomfited visitor turned slowly away from the inhospitable mansion. I rejoined him as he staggered past me. He showed no surprise at seeing me again, but contented himself with simply asking me where the —— I had been. From what he said in answer to my questions, it appeared that they had had the brutality to tell him to call when he was sober,—"as if," said he, with a good many curses, "I wasn't sober enough for them. Wouldn't even give me a night's shelter. But it's always how they've treated me—a houtcast, that's what I am—a houtcast."
Apparently hard hit, the "houtcast," who for the time being certainly had some grounds for so styling himself, leaned with his back against the gate, as if the effort to stand upright was too much for him on the top of his recent disappointment. His plight was undoubtedly pitiable. He had no money, it was well after midnight, the city was distant, and moreover the search for a lodging would in his condition be a matter of time and difficulty. Taking pity on his forlorn state, I offered him the shelter of my own roof for the night, an offer he was not slow to accept, remarking that one gentleman should help another; and that if I had any "tidy brandy" he would be able to get on well enough until to-morrow. So we set out for my lodgings in Cecil Street.
This chance meeting was the beginning of a long and intimate acquaintance. In the course of conversation I disclosed to Charles Webster—such was his name—the desperate state of my affairs, with the gloomy prospect they entailed. The remedy he proposed—and when sober he spoke well and sensibly—was drastic and by no means unfeasible. "Cut it all and go to sea," he said. "You've enjoyed yourself while your money lasted, and what's the good of money but to spend? You've spent yours—now go to sea and get some more. That's how I do—have a regular good blow-out when I draw my pay, and then ship for another voyage."
"That is all very well for you," I replied, "but how can I, without either training or experience, get a berth on board ship?"
"I can do it for you," replied Webster. "Lots of vessels are ordered to sea in a hurry, and not particular in picking up a crew, or perhaps a trifle over-loaded or not properly found, and short-handed in consequence. That's the sort of craft I'd look out for you, and if one wouldn't take you, another would. I'd tog you out like an A.B., and swear you knew your duty."
"And what when they found I didn't?"
"Wouldn't matter a straw when we were afloat. All they could do would be to d——n my eyes or yours and make the best of it. It's done every day. Certificates go for nothing, they're so easily obtained. When the voyage was over, you'd be up to a thing or two, and the skipper would rather sign your papers than be at the bother of going and swearing you weren't a thorough seaman; then you could get another job without me. It's done constantly, I tell you, and why not? Nobody can do anything without learning. You take a trip with me, and I'll make a sailor of you. You've stood by me like a gentleman, and I'll give you a lift if I can."
Well, to cut the story short, I resolved, after some cogitation, to follow his advice, as, in the circumstances to which I had contrived to reduce myself, I saw nothing better to do. My introduction to a seafaring life was effected pretty much on the lines indicated in the foregoing conversation. The change from the existence of a voluptuary, squandering thousands on the wanton pleasure of the moment, to that of a common sailor, was at first anything but agreeable, and often and bitterly did I curse the follies of the past. However, we learn from experience, and probably I have profited by the unpalatable lesson. Webster was a firm ally, and showed that despite his dissolute and reckless mode of living, he really did possess something of the character which he claimed, that of a gentleman. Under his tuition, and being moreover, like Cuddie Headrigg, "gleg at the uptak," I made rapid progress in knowledge.
We made several voyages together. In the summer of the year 1894 we were in San Francisco, and rather at a loose end; Webster with a good deal of money in his possession, and spending it as usual in riotous living. We were intimate at this time with a man named Francis Chubb, an Australian by birth, an able seaman, and a very reckless, daring, and resolute character. To him it is owing that I have this tale to tell. One night as we were sitting over our potations, he made us a singular communication and a singular proposition. A shipper and merchant of the place, by whom he had often been employed, had, he said, asked him if he was open to run a cargo of warlike stores for the use of the Chinese soldiers in the struggle which had just broken out, there being rumours that the Chinamen were ill-prepared for a contest, and badly in need of supplies. Chubb added that he had practically closed with the offer, and was looking about for men whom he could depend upon to join him in the enterprise, which his employer, foreseeing from the turn events were taking that the Chinese ports were likely soon to be blockaded, meant as a "feeler" to test the facilities for, and the profit likely to arise from, the organization of a system for supplying those munitions of war of which the Celestials were stated to be in want, some large orders being alleged to have been lodged with American firms on their behalf. Chubb was to command the vessel, and he offered to Webster and myself the posts of first and second hands. The remuneration was very handsome, and we, not adverse to the prospect of a little adventure, had little hesitation in closing with the proposal, much to Chubb's satisfaction, who said we were "just the sort he wanted." His employer, Mr. H——, I no sooner heard named, than I remembered to have heard described as a very keen hand, and not over-scrupulous.
The vessel which he placed at our disposal was a screw steamer of about 2000 tons, long, low, and sharp; an exceedingly fast boat, capable of doing her twenty knots an hour even when heavily laden, as, in a desperate emergency, we were soon to find out. Articles signed, our cargo was procured and shipped—cannon, rifles, revolvers, cartridges, fuses, medicines, etc., etc. We cleared without difficulty, weighed, stood out, and laid our course straight across the North Pacific.
Our ship, the Columbia, proved a beauty, in every way fit for the risky business we were engaged upon. Needless to say she had not only been selected for speed, but was rendered in appearance as unobtrusive as possible. Besides lying low in the water, she was painted a dead grey, funnels and all. The sort of coal we used, anthracite, burned with very little smoke, and even that little was obviated, as we approached the seat of war, by a hood on the smoke-stack. She slipped through the water silently and noiselessly as one of its natural denizens, and on a dark night, with all lights out, could hardly have been perceived, even at a short distance, from the deck of another vessel.
Without the ship's log to refer to, I cannot be certain of dates and distances, but it was in the latter days of August that we were steaming up the Yellow Sea, where, by the way, the water is bluer than I have ever seen it elsewhere. In some places it presents, on a moonlit night, the appearance of liquefied ultramarine, though it certainly is muddy enough about the coasts. Our destination was Tientsin, one of the most northern of the treaty ports, and of course we kept in with the Chinese mainland as closely as possible to avoid the Japanese cruisers. All had gone well, and we were fast approaching the entrance to the Gulf of Pechili, when we encountered one of those tempests which are only to be met with in the Eastern seas—pitch-black darkness, rain in one sheeted flood, like a second Deluge, blinding flashes of forked lightning more terrific than the gloom, and an almost uninterrupted crash of thunder amidst which the uproar of a pitched field would be inaudible. With our enormous steam-power we held our own for a while although unable to make much headway; but at last a tremendous sea took us right abeam on the port side; the main hatch had been left open, a small Niagara poured down it, and doused our fires. No canvas would have stood the hurricane that was blowing, and for some time we were in a serious way. Before our engines, which fortunately held firm, were working again, we had drifted helplessly over to the Corean coast, and it was all we could do to claw off-shore until the tempest abated, which it did very suddenly, as it had risen.
As the wind fell, we ran under the lee of an island, oblong, high, and thickly wooded, not far from a heavy promontory of the coast. Here we lay for two or three hours repairing damages. Of course we had no accurate idea whereabouts we had got to, but we reckoned that we could not be far from Chemulpo, a very undesirable neighbourhood from our point of view, as the port was in the hands of the Japanese, who were engaged in landing troops there, and whose armed ships would of course be in the vicinity. It was, therefore, necessary for us to spend as little time thereabout as possible. As soon as things were ship-shape once more—and luckily for ourselves we had sustained no real injury—steam was got up to regain our former course. It was already quite dark as we passed out from beneath the land; two bells in the first night-watch, or nine o'clock, had just struck. Truly that was a case of out of the frying-pan into the fire, for no sooner had we rounded the extremity of the island than we found ourselves in most unpleasant proximity to a ship of war. I was alone on the bridge at the time, and at once caused the engines to be reversed, in the hope of slipping back behind the land from the cover of which we had just emerged. Too late; we were perceived, and the cruiser's search-light blazed forth, illuminating the dark waters, sky, and coastline with a vivid glare. Simultaneously we were hailed loudly, although the distance was too great to permit of the words being distinguished, keenly as I strained my ears to catch them.
Seeing that we were detected, and knowing that the appearance of flight would increase suspicion, I stopped the steamer, devoutly hoping that our unwelcome neighbour might be a detached vessel of some European squadron. That she could be Chinese there was little hope, as we were aware that the Celestial fleet was in the Gulf of Pechili. Almost before our engines were stopped, one of the cruiser's boats was in the water and dancing towards us. Chubb and Webster ran up from below, and as we awaited the boat, we uneasily speculated as to the character of the craft that had despatched it, as she lay within a quarter of a mile of us, the white muzzles of the guns in her tops and turret seeming, as she rolled with the swell, to dip in the wave. Formidable indeed she looked, and there was an evident stir of offensive preparation on board her; yet in spite of our danger, I could not resist a feeling of surprised and wondering admiration of the wild picturesqueness of the scene—the majestic warship, the glittering, rolling expanse of the sea, and the black lines of the shores, under that intense and vivid radiance, which might fitly have emanated from one of those phantom-craft with which maritime superstition peoples the deep. Everything it touched took a ghostly and unreal look.
There was rather a heavy sea on, and the boat took some while to reach us. At length, however, she was alongside, and then came clambering up a little lieutenant, who displayed to our dismayed vision all the physical peculiarities of the Japanese. He addressed us in English, a language better understood than any other amongst the Mikado's subjects.
"You are American?" he asked, pointing to the star-spangled banner on the pole-mast. "What is the name of your vessel?"
We informed him, and received in return that of the warship, but in our consternation we paid little heed to it, and none of us could afterwards remember it. The lieutenant proceeded to question us as to our business, speaking very creditable English. We had previously agreed that in such a dilemma we should describe our cargo as consisting of salt, rice, and cloth stuffs, and we had taken the precaution to ship a quantity of those commodities, in bales and casks which were three parts full of cartridges to economize space, besides having fictitious invoices, etc. These valuable testimonials Chubb, who was outwardly as cool as ice, readily produced when the officer demanded to see our papers. He scrutinized everything carefully, and, still dissatisfied, said he would inspect our cargo. Of course we could not object, and blank indeed were our looks as the enemy walked over to the side to call up two or three of his boat's crew to assist him in the inquisition.
"Never mind," said Chubb, "it's not all up with us yet, and it won't be even if he finds out what we have aboard."
"What shall we do then?" asked Webster and I.
"Sling them overboard and run for it," said Chubb; and I knew by his determined air that he meant what he said.
"What! from under those guns?" said Webster.
There was no time for more. The Japanese lieutenant, with his men, rejoined us, and motioned us to lead the way below. We complied, and introduced them to our "cargo," the barrels lying everywhere three or four deep above the contraband of war. How consuming was our anxiety as they poked about! Things went well enough for a while; they never penetrated into the casks which they caused to be opened deep enough to find the cartridges, or hoisted out enough of them to come at what was beneath. Our spirits were beginning to rise, when an unlucky accident sent them down to zero. The hoops of one of the barrels handled were insecure, and coming off, the staves fell apart, and along with a defensive covering of slabs of salt, a neat assortment of revolver cartridges came tumbling out. The Japanese lieutenant smiled till his little oblique optics were scarcely perceptible.
"Very good," said he, picking up one of the packages; "very nice—nice to eat."
We were thunderstruck, and had not a word to say. All was up now, of course; the Japs prosecuted the search with renewed keenness, and the nature of our lading soon stood revealed.
"I shall be obliged to detain this ship, gentlemen," said the lieutenant politely, to Webster and myself. "Where has your captain gone?"
I looked round for Chubb; he was not visible.
"I suppose he must have gone on deck," said I.
The lieutenant and his men hurried up, Webster and I following. Chubb was conferring with a group of the sailors. The search-light was still flaring away, and I was horrified to see that our formidable neighbour had crept up to within two or three hundred yards. The lieutenant walked sharply to the side, and shouted some directions to the boat's crew. The words were scarcely out of his mouth when I heard Chubb say, "Now." The men with whom he had been speaking rushed upon the Japanese, seized them, and in the twinkling of an eye hove them overboard into their boat, or as near it as they could be aimed in the hurry of the moment. Simultaneously "Full speed ahead" was rung from the bridge, and the steamer sprang forward as the hare springs from the jaws of the hound. For a moment there was no sound except the rush of the water foaming at the bows. Then the warship opened fire on us. Gun after gun resounded, and we held our breath as the ponderous shot hurtled past us. The first few were wide of the mark, but we were not long to go scatheless. One of the terrible projectiles struck the water by the starboard quarter, rose over the side with a tremendous ricochet, bowled over one of the men, and smashed the top of the opposite bulwark. Immediately after another tore transversely across the decks, playing, as Chubb afterwards said, "all-fired smash" with everything it encountered, and killing another of the men, who was cut literally in two, the upper portion of his body being carried overboard, the lower half remaining on the deck.
"He's mad," roared Webster, meaning Chubb; "we ain't going to be sunk to please him," and he rushed on the bridge to put a stop to our flight.
Chubb interposed to prevent him; they closed, grappled together, and finally fell off the bridge, still struggling.
The cruiser had to stop to pick up her boat, and the delay probably saved us; we must, moreover, have been a very uncertain mark in the unnatural light, which doubtless would be no aid to gunnery practice. On we tore, with the steam-gauge uncomfortably near danger point; the warship in hot pursuit, looking, wreathed as she was in the smoke and flame of her fiercely worked guns, and the electric glare of the vivid shaft which still turned night into day, more like some fabulous sea-monster than a fabric contrived by man. She plied us with both shot and shell; one of the latter burst in the air over our bows; two men were killed and several injured by the fragments. We were struck nine or ten times in all, but they were glancing blows, which never fairly hulled us. Chubb held on resolutely; we increased our distance fast, and at length ran out of range. Never before had I felt so thankful as when those fearful projectiles began to fall short. From that point we were safe. We were five knots better than our pursuer, and the only danger lay in the chance that some other cruiser, attracted by the firing, might be brought across the line of our flight. None, however, appeared, and our great speed dropped the enemy long before daylight.
The damage to the ship was confined to the upper works, and could soon be put to rights, but five of the crew had been killed and twice that number wounded, and unused to such work as I was, I felt strongly inclined to blame Chubb for incurring this sacrifice of life for what appeared to me an inadequate object. He laughed it away.
"They take the risk," said he, "they know it, and they are well paid for it. We've saved ship and cargo; that's all old H—— will think about, and all we need care for."
It was far, however, from being all I cared for as I looked upon the mangled corpses lately filled with life and vigour. I had embarked on the enterprise in a spirit of levity and carelessness, reflecting little on what it might entail, and there was something shocking in thus suddenly coming face to face with the dread reality of war. But whatever may have been the source of the feeling, it soon passed away, and when the dead had been sewed up in their hammocks and laid to their last rest in the deep—a ceremony we performed the day after our escape—Richard was himself again, and the old careless buoyancy swelled up once more.
Prayer-books had been omitted in our outfit, and we were at a loss for the burial service. However, we laid our heads, or rather our memories together, and most of us being able to recollect a scrap of it here and there, we contrived to patch it up sufficiently to give our unfortunate shipmates Christian burial. I should mention that another of the wounded men died after our arrival at Tientsin, and was interred in the English cemetery. He was the man who was first hit; his name was Massinger, and he claimed to be a descendant of the dramatist. He was known on board chiefly as "Hair-oil," from his addiction to plastering his bushy black hair with some shiny and odorous compound of that nature. Both his legs were broken by the shot that struck him.
As to my friend Webster, adorned with a black eye, he never ceased, during the remainder of the voyage, to declaim against Chubb's foolhardiness and uphold his own proceedings on the eventful night. For his own discomfiture he sought consolation in rum, protesting that it was a miracle that any of us had survived to taste another drop of that liquid comforter.
"But I'm a houtcast," he would wind up invariably, as his potations overcame him; "that's where it is—who cares what a —— houtcast thinks?"
Chubb took no further notice of him than to laughingly threaten to put him under arrest for mutiny. It must not be supposed that the "houtcast's" behaviour on the occasion in question was due to any want of courage. Escape seemed impossible; the risk of the attempt was tremendous, and I am convinced that if the matter had been left to my own judgment, I should not have dared it. But Chubb was one of those men whom nothing can daunt, and who are never more completely in their element than when running some desperate hazard.
We reached Tientsin without further mishap, and turned over our cargo to Mr. H——'s agent, who disposed of it at a handsome profit, though hardly sufficient, I thought, to warrant the risking of so valuable a ship as the Columbia. We lay in the port about a week, to effect the repairs rendered necessary by the Japanese gun practice.
At Tientsin a war council was sitting, and one morning Mr. Mac——, the agent, came on board and informed us that he had received a proposal for the Columbia to be chartered as a transport to convey troops to the Corea. It was only, he said, for an immediate special service, and the terms being exceedingly advantageous he had resolved on his own responsibility to accept the offer, as the work would not occupy us more than a few days. We were to be one of a convoy of transports which, sailing at different times from different ports, were to rendezvous in Talienwan Bay on the east coast of the Liaotung Peninsula, where the troops were to be embarked under protection of an armed squadron. There was no time to be lost, and we were to weigh anchor and make for the bay as soon as possible.
On the afternoon of the same day two Chinese emissaries came to make a visit of inspection, and in the evening we steamed out of the port, flying the American colours, with nothing of course to fear at the moment. On arriving at Talienwan we found the bay full of shipping. Four large transports were already engaged in the work of embarkation, and another arrived after we did. The warships presented a gallant array, twelve in all, belonging, with two or three exceptions, to the North Coast Squadron. There were four torpedo-boats in addition. The most powerful vessels were the Chen-Yuen and the Ting-Yuen, barbette ships, English-built, I think, of 7280 tons. The King-Yuen and Lai-Yuen were two barbette ships of smaller tonnage—2850. Then came the Ping-Yuen, of 2850 tons, a coast-defence armour-clad; a turret-ship, the Tsi-Yuen, of 2320 tons; the Chih-Yuen, Ching-Yuen, Kwang-Kai and Kwang-Ting, all of 2300 tons, deck-protected cruisers; and the Chao-Yung and Yang-Wei, each of 1400 tons, unprotected cruisers.
I have forgotten to say that we took a Chinese agent on board at Tientsin for the trip. He was alleged to be able to speak English, but rarely indeed was his jargon intelligible. I asked him to translate the names of the Chinese warships, but this was a task far beyond the linguistic capacity of my friend Lin Wong. I understood him to say that it would require "too muchee words" to render in our prosaic tongue the amount of poetic imagery concentrated in the expressions "Chih-Yuen," or "Kwang-Kai." Of what the names mean I am in ignorance still.
We were speedily boarded by a boat from the flagship, to the officer of which Lin Wong gave an account of his stewardship, and we received directions to draw up to the landing-stage in turn and receive our human freight. The troops were still arriving from the roads to Talien and Kinchou. They seemed for the most part an undisciplined lot, and came streaming on board in no particular order; here and there a mounted officer directing with shouts, gestures, and blows too, the movements of the surging masses that crowded along the water-side. The number embarked I reckoned at about 18,000. There was also a large quantity of military stores to be shipped, and busy enough we were. In the evening I had a glimpse of Admiral Ting, who had been ashore and was returning to his ship. His barge passed close alongside the Columbia. I saw a young-looking man, very pleasant in expression and manner; altogether what we should call highly gentlemanly in appearance. It is well known that he expiated his failures by suicide after the final ruin of Wei-hai-wei.
All was complete on the second day after our arrival, and shortly before noon the flagship signalled us to weigh anchor. I may remark that the Chinese Navy is English trained, and the duty is carried on in English, owing to the intractable character of the Chinese language, the fact that officers and men have thus practically to learn a foreign tongue in order to work their ships being an obvious disadvantage. The transports were grouped together and the warships disposed in sections abreast and ahead, with the active torpedo-boats in the rear. Our destination was the estuary of the Yalu, the large river which divides China from the Corea. We left Talienwan on September 14, and reached the river on the afternoon of the 16th. The work of disembarkation commenced immediately, although rumours reached us from Wi-ju of the disastrous defeat of the first Chinese army at Ping-Yang in the Corea the day before. It illustrates the ridiculous inefficiency of the Chinese measures from first to last, that troops should thus have been landed at hap-hazard far from any point of communication with the interior of the Peninsula, the very day after an action which extinguished their prospect of maintaining their ground in the Corea.
The warships anchored across the mouth of the river, whilst the transports proceeded some distance up the stream. Wi-ju is the only settlement of any size in this little-known region, though there are numerous fishing-hamlets scattered about. The soldiers improvised their camps along the bank. A wild scene was presented when night fell on the 16th—the glare of the bivouac, extending far along the desolate water-side; the concourse of savage figures in the lurid gloom, with here and there in the distance the gigantic shape of an illuminated warship. We worked well into the night, and were at it again when the sun rose—a glorious sunrise, pouring over everything floods of crimson splendour.
The first accounts which reached England of the action miscalled the battle of Yalu, categorically stated that it was fought off the mouth of the river whilst the work of landing the soldiers was proceeding. This story I fancy to have been invented by the Chinese as a sort of excuse for their defeat, by representing themselves as fighting at a great disadvantage in covering the disembarkation. However this may be, the fact is that the work was completed by about seven o'clock on the morning of the 17th, when no enemy was in sight. When the Columbia weighed and stood out of the river, after breakfast, about nine o'clock, we found that the main body of the fleet had departed, though three or four cruisers and the torpedo-boats still remained in the bay. We and the other transport masters had received an intimation that we were at liberty to return to our respective ports upon the conclusion of the work of disembarkation. As to the Columbia, Chubb had had instructions from Mr. H——'s agent to make straight from the Yalu to San Francisco, report to our owner, and take his further orders. We had, however, to deal with the Chinese supercargo, if I may so term him, Lin Wong, who still remained on board, and wanted to be re-conveyed to the Gulf of Pechili. We proposed to put him on board one of the warships, but as they were already under weigh when we steamed down, there was no immediate opportunity of doing so. They were following in the wake of the main squadron towards Port Arthur, steering south by west from the mouth of the river. We held on with them, only one other transport ship doing the same.
For three hours we steamed on thus, at about twelve knots. Towards noon we saw dense smoke all along the horizon ahead, and a heavy, dull, rumbling sound reached us which soon made itself unmistakable as the roar of artillery. We immediately guessed that the squadron preceding us had been attacked by the enemy. Our escort, if I may so term it, drew inshore, and I at first thought from their demeanour that they were going to shirk entering the engagement. If such was their intention, however, they changed it, and stood boldly on with the torpedo-boats. We came to a stop, undecided how to proceed. The other transport which had accompanied us was already in full retreat, and Lin Wong, in whom discretion seemed very unduly proportioned to valour, advised a similar course on our part. Chubb and I, however, felt a strong desire to see the fight, and as we were not now under the Chinese flag, there seemed no reason why we should not stay to witness it, particularly as there was no need to let the Columbia be seen.
We therefore, in spite of the unintelligible protests of Lin Wong, cast anchor, having hoisted American colours, in one of the numerous bays that indent the rocky coast of the Liaotung. Then Chubb and myself, leaving Webster in charge, pulled off in a small boat towards the scene of action. We kept close to the shore, and had about a mile and a half to pull before we came abreast of the conflict. With its deepening thunders bellowing in our deafened ears, we landed where the ground was high, and ascending the most elevated point we could perceive, had, with the aid of powerful glasses, a good view of the scene. Terrific indeed it was—a wide, dense pall of smoke, which there was little wind to carry off; through the haze the huge reeling shapes of the fighting vessels, looming indistinctly, vomiting flame like so many angry dragons, and several of them burning in addition, having been set on fire by shells; and above all the appalling concussion of the great guns, like the bursting of incessant thunder-bolts.
By this time it was half-past two p.m., and the battle had been in progress nearly three hours. Not having seen the commencement of the affair, we were for some time unable to make head or tail of it. The ships were mixed up and scattered, and we could perceive little sign of plan or combination on either side. The first thing that began to make itself evident as we watched was that the struggle was nearing the coast. At first the nearest ships had been fully a league and a half seaward; before we had occupied our position three-quarters of an hour, many were well within two miles of the coast. So evident was this that Chubb remarked that half of them would be ashore before the fighting was over. This of course enabled us to distinguish the vessels better, and we began to make out evident signs that John Chinaman was getting much the worst of it. The Japanese vessels, working in concert and keeping together, as we began to perceive, seemed to sail round and round the enemy, pouring on them an incessant cannonade, and excelling them in rapidity of fire and manoeuvring. Some of the Chinese vessels appeared to me to present an appearance of helplessness, and there was no indication of combination as amongst their opponents. Not but what they blazed away valiantly enough, and some of them had evidently given as good as they got, for more than one Japanese vessel was in flames. Of course we could not identify these ships, but we could make out that in numbers and armament they were a fair match for the Chinese squadron. They appeared to pay special attention to the two great Chinese ironclads, the Chen-Yuen and Ting-Yuen, one of which at least had had her big guns, 37-ton Krupps, silenced, though still contributing to the entertainment with the quick-firing armament. Shortly after three, the King-Yuen, fired by shells, began to burn fiercely; she showed through the smoke like a mass of flame, and was evidently sinking, settling down on an even keel. Three or four of the enemy circled round, plying her with shot and shell. Finally, with a plunge she disappeared, and the immediate darkening, as the smoke-clouds rolled in where the fierce blaze of the burning wreck had been, was like the sudden drawing of a veil over the spot where hundreds of men had met their simultaneous doom. The cannonade slackened, but soon broke out again fiercely as ever. About this time it seemed as if the Japanese flagship, Matshushima, was about to share the same fate. She looked all in a blaze forward. The fire, however, was got under, and later on she was taken out of the action.
Meanwhile the Chinese ships had been forced still nearer to the land, and the Chao-Yung, an absolute ruin, drifted helplessly ashore, half a league from where we stood. By the aid of our glasses we could perceive her condition clearly—her upper works knocked to pieces; her decks, strewn with mutilated bodies, an indiscriminate mass of wreck and carnage. Her crew were abandoning her, struggling to land as best they could. Subsequently the Yang-Wei went ashore similarly battered to pieces and burning. She was much further off, and we made her out less distinctly. On the Japanese side not one ship had sunk as far as we had seen, and though the flagship and some of the smaller craft were in an unenviable state, the attack was kept up with immense spirit, and prompt obedience was paid to signals, which were frequent, whereas we looked in vain for any sign of leadership on the part of the Celestials. Later in the action another of their best ships, the Chih-Yuen, came to grief. She had evidently been for long in difficulties, labouring heavily, with the steam-pumps constantly in requisition, as we could tell by the streams of water poured from her sides. Bravely she fought on unsupported, and her upper deck and top guns were served until she sank. At length her bows were completely engulfed; the stern rose high out of water, disclosing the whirling propellers, and bit by bit she disappeared. We could hear distinctly the yelling sounds of triumph that rose from the Japanese ships as she went down. The Chen-Yuen and Ting-Yuen, which seemed to fight together during the action, tried when too late to assist her.
At five o'clock, as darkness came on, the firing rapidly decreased, and the opposing squadrons began to separate. Some of the Chinese vessels were out of sight in the gloom to the southward, and the Japanese slowly drew off seaward. We thought it now high time to regain the Columbia, and took to our boat, discussing the fight and speculating on the probable renewal of it. We felt little surprise that the Chinese should have had the worst of it, for we had had good reason to suspect that their fleet had greatly fallen off from the state of unquestionable efficiency to which English tuition had brought it. Whilst ashore in Talienwan I had a conversation with Mr. Purvis, an English engineer on board the Chih-Yuen. I asked him what he thought would be the result of an encounter with an equal Japanese force. He said the Chinese would have a good chance if well handled, expressing on that head distinct doubts.
"They are very brave," said he—and I can answer for it that there was no perceptible flinching on their part during the action—"and I believe Ting to be a good man, but he is under the thumb of Von Hannecken"—meaning Captain or Major Von Hannecken, a German army officer, one of the foreign volunteers in the fleet. The significance of the remark is apparent when we consider the statements made to the effect that it was he who was really in command on the day of the engagement, Admiral Ting deferring to his suggestions. I am in no position to affirm whether this is really the truth or not, but if it be indeed the fact, it cannot be held to be astonishing that disaster should have overtaken a fleet manoeuvred by a soldier! I recollect that Mr. Purvis also informed me that the boilers of two or three of the vessels (instancing the destroyed Chao-Yung) were worn-out and unfit for service. Laxity of discipline, too, seems to have resulted in disobedience or disregard of orders. As an instance of this, it is alleged that instructions telegraphed from the conning-tower of the flagship were varied or suppressed by the officer at the telegraph, and that a subsequent comparison of notes with the engineer afforded proof of this.
I was forcibly struck by the comparatively unimportant part played in this action by that "dark horse" of modern naval warfare, the dreaded and much-discussed torpedo. Both squadrons had several torpedo-boats present, though, as I have shown, those on the Chinese side did not enter the action until it had been proceeding more than an hour. The Japanese allege that they did not use the torpedo at all during the action, and however this may be, there is nothing to show that the weapon made on either side a single effective hit. I drew the impression from what I saw, that it would be apt to be ineffectual as used by one ship against another, an antagonist in the evolutions of the combat, as the prospect of hitting, unless the ships were very close together, would be small. The specially-built boat, running close in, and making sure of the mark, would of course be dangerous, although the storm of shot from the quick-firing guns ought even in that case to be a tolerably adequate protection. The torpedo undoubtedly was not given a fair chance at the battle of Yalu, but the result seems to indicate that its terrors have been overrated, that artillery must still be reckoned the backbone of naval warfare. Probably the torpedo will turn out to be most effective in surprise attacks on ships and fleets at anchor. The experience of Wei-hai-wei seems to point to this.
It was dark long before we got back to the bay where we had anchored the Columbia, and we might have found it impossible to make out her whereabouts if Webster had not hoisted lights to guide us. When again aboard we got up steam and stood out to sea. We should have run for the Yellow Sea at once but for the presence of the Chinese agent, whom we had had no opportunity of transferring from the Columbia. A motion to throw him overboard was negatived, and we resolved to hold on for Port Arthur, where we could get rid of him without going much out of our way. Besides, we felt curious to see if any further encounter would take place between the hostile squadrons. Such, however, was not fated to be the case. The Japanese allege that they intended to renew the attack in the morning, and tried with that view to hold a course parallel with that of the retreating Chinese, but lost them during the night.
We reached Port Arthur on the 19th, and having obtained a pilot, entered the harbour. We found there only two of the vessels belonging to the defeated squadron, the Ping Yuen and the Kwang Ting. The former did not seem much injured, but the latter had evidently suffered heavily, the port bow being partially stove, the upper works demolished, and the armouring tremendously battered and dinted.
Shortly after casting anchor in the West Port, I lowered a boat to take Lin Wong ashore. In the dockyard he ascertained that a fast steam launch was to leave for Tientsin with despatches within two days, and he arranged to take advantage of her departure to regain that port, from which, it will be remembered, he had come on board the Columbia. As he seemed well acquainted with Port Arthur, I got him to take me round, and show me as much of the place as could be seen in the two or three hours of leisure at my disposal, for the Columbia was to trip her anchor again in the evening.
The general features of Port Arthur, or, to give it its native name, Lu-Shun-Kou, must be tolerably familiar to all who have followed the course of the war. A glance at the map shows its position, at the southern extremity of the Liaotung Peninsula, commanding, with the formidable forts of Wei-hai-wei on the opposite tongue of land, near Chefoo, the entrance to the Gulf of Pechili. Although now the principal arsenal and naval depot of the Chinese Empire, it is of quite recent creation, only having come into note since 1881, in which year it was decided to establish a naval dockyard. Up to then it had only been used as a harbour for junks employed in the timber trade and carrying cargoes from the Yalu to ports in the Pechili Gulf, or from the south to Niuchang and West Chin-chou. Native contractors having made an extensive bungle of the job, it was entrusted to a French company, and by them completed. Since then the place has increased, from an insignificant village of sixty or seventy mud houses and a few shops, to a town of over a thousand dwellings, as well as two large theatres, two temples, and a number of banks and inns. The population at the time of the Japanese incursion was about 5000 or 6000, in addition to a garrison of about 7000. The port is very spacious and commodious, and dredgers have worked assiduously for several years past to deepen the entrance to it. The bar has been deepened from twelve feet to about twenty-five feet to enable permanent moorings to be laid down for men-of-war. The dock basin, called the East Port, covering an area of thirty-two acres, has been constructed well behind the signal bluffs to the right of the entrance, the West Port, or natural harbour, opening just opposite round the long, narrow spit of land called the Tiger's Tail. The basin has a depth of twenty-five feet at low water. There are large and numerous wharves and quays, fitted with steam cranes, and connected by a railway with the workshops, which contain all the most modern machinery and engines. The dockyard, and in fact a considerable portion of the town, is supplied with fresh water conveyed by pipes from a spring about four miles to the north. There is a smaller dock for torpedo boats, and a torpedo depot on shore where those weapons can be tested and regulated. The entrance to the port is defended by torpedoes and submarine mines, although, as I noticed, some of the latter had been so badly constructed and adjusted for depth as to show above water.
For defensive purposes nature and art have combined to render the place exceedingly strong. Ranges of hills, varying from 300 feet to 1500 feet, surround the port and town almost completely, offering scope for fortification of the most formidable character, advantages which, as far as construction goes, have been well utilized, massive and lofty stone forts occupying every point of advantage. I believe they are of German construction. They bristle with heavy Krupp and Nordenfeldt guns. The elevation on the coast varies from eighty feet to 410 feet. The land defences, though newer than those seaward, are less powerful; the heaviest guns, of 21 and 24 centimetre, are in the latter. Everywhere the forts are supplemented by trenches, rifle-pits, and open redoubts or walled camps.
Such is, or was, Port Arthur, and when we remember how the Turks held Plevna, an open town until the earthworks were hastily thrown up round it, for months against all the force Russia could bring against it, one cannot but feel amazement that a place so powerful should so easily have fallen. Properly defended, it should be unreducible by anything but famine. The coast defences are impregnable, and those inland, though more susceptible of attack, should not fall before anything short of overwhelming superiority of force. I should like to have seen the 20,000 men whom the Japanese led against it take that fortress in forty-eight hours from Osman Pacha's army. The Mikado's generals, however, had formed a perfectly just estimate of their own powers as against those of the enemy. In fact, a third of their force could have taken Port Arthur from the ridiculous soldiers who held it.
The garrison in ordinary times amounts to 7000 men, but before the Japanese attack it had been increased to nearly 20,000. This is inadequate; 30,000 men at least should occupy the fortress in time of war, and 40,000 would not in my opinion be too many.
The chief man in the place when I was there was the Taotai, or governor, Kung, a brother, I have heard, of the Ambassador to England. His office, I believe, is civil; the military chiefs were Generals Tsung and Ju. The soldiers, who appeared to range about everywhere pretty much at their own discretion, were an uncouth, rough lot, with very little of the smartness of dress and bearing which we associate with the military character. Everywhere was a most portentous display of banners, as if the sacrilegious foot of a foeman could not be set on any spot rendered sacred by the dragon flag. The town presented a very neat and compact aspect, and struck me very favourably as compared with Tientsin, the only other Chinese town I had been in, and which seemed to me to be for the most part composed of narrow, dirty, stinking lanes with one or two good streets in the centre. Port Arthur, as might be expected of so recent a settlement, constructed to a large extent under European supervision, is very much better built, and altogether presents, or did present—for to a melancholy and deplorable condition was it soon to be reduced—a thriving and busy aspect.
At dusk I quitted the streets, with their bazaar-like shops and strange illuminations, and made my way back to the port under escort of my Chinese friend, who with Oriental politeness insisted on seeing me safe back on board. A most unwelcome shock awaited me. No Columbia was to be found, and Lin Wong's inquiries elicited that she had left nearly an hour before. We hunted up the pilot who had taken her out, and learned from him that she had steamed away south-east immediately; she could not, therefore, be awaiting me outside. What on earth could be the meaning of it? I could only conjecture that by some oversight the fact of my not being on board had been forgotten. She possibly might return on its being discovered that I had been left ashore, but in the meantime what was I to do? A suggestion by Lin solved the difficulty. If the Columbia did not put back, I could obtain a passage to Tientsin on the vessel which was soon to convey him to that port, where I could arrange my future proceedings according to circumstances. This seeming the only feasible plan, I, with many internal maledictions upon the stupid mischance, accompanied the agent to an hotel or inn where he had already chartered quarters for his short stay in the place. There are some half-dozen of these establishments in Port Arthur. Three or four of them are wretched hovels, which existed in the squalid infancy of the town; the newer ones are larger and fairly commodious and comfortable. The one we occupied was near one of the gates of the approaches to the north-eastern forts. Mine host was a square, thick-set Celestial named Sen. Port Arthur being well accustomed to "foreign devils," some of the servants had been engaged for their knowledge of that curious dialect "pidgin English," which in the far East is pretty much what Lingua Franca is in the Levant. With a little practice it is easily comprehended, although, under the chaperonage of Lin, my difficulties were largely reduced. Fortunately I had a considerable sum of American money in my pockets, and with Lin's aid was able to negotiate it at one of the banks, at a pretty smart loss, I may say. Otherwise I was fairly content and comfortable, and had no human want but whisky.
Nothing of interest occurred during the day and a half that elapsed before the departure of the despatch-boat. Punctual enough as to time she steamed out of the harbour under cover of night, with the Chinese agent and myself on board. Misfortunes are well known never to come singly, and so it was in my case. The morning after our departure was very foggy, and towards noon we had to slow down to less than half speed. Suddenly, without a moment's warning, a Japanese gunboat loomed through the dun vapour close on the port bow. With their ridiculous fondness for showing it on all occasions, in season and out, the Celestials had their flag flaunting on a staff in the stern. The Japanese on the gunboat perceived it, for without troubling to hail she opened on us with the machine-guns in her tops. A storm of balls swept the deck, and half of those upon it fell dead or wounded. One of the bullets cut off the peak of my cap with mechanical neatness, leaving the rest of the article on my head, though turned quite round, back to front. Before anything could be done to increase our speed, a quick-firing gun plumped several heavy shot through us. The machinery was damaged, we swung round helplessly, and were evidently fast sinking. We had two boats of no great size; one of them was knocked to splinters by the shot; the other we lowered as fast as we could. As many as it would hold got into it, the others jumped into the water, and within half a minute afterwards our vessel went down, and the woe-begone survivors of the sudden catastrophe found themselves prisoners on the deck of her destroyer.
She was the Itsuku gunboat of about five hundred tons, on a cruise of observation in the Gulf, along with two or three consorts, whom she had lost in the fog. There was not a soul on board who could speak a word of English, but by a few Chinese was sufficiently understood, and a gunnery officer could speak tolerable French, a knowledge of which tongue I shall probably be recollected to have mentioned as being the major portion of the inadequate exchange for my eighty thousand pounds. They informed us that they had taken us for a torpedo boat, and seeing the Chinese flag had no hesitation in opening fire on so dangerous a neighbour, as they deemed us. They seemed very scantily pleased when told our real character, and learnt that their precipitancy had perhaps lost them a little promotion, or at least honourable mention, as capturers of important despatches, as I understand them to have been.
I remained on board this vessel for more than a month. The Chinese, of course, were prisoners of war, but there was no ground for detaining me as such. I related how I had been left behind by the Columbia at Port Arthur, without, of course, giving any hint that she had been engaged in supplying China with war material. I thought this would satisfy my captors, but I was not long in finding out that they entertained their own ideas as to my character, for one day I was plainly asked whether I was not a military or naval instructor of the Chinese. I was able to conscientiously deny that I was any such thing, but the query took me very much aback, as the naturalness of the suspicion was obvious, and I foresaw no end of trouble in clearing myself of it. The commander of the gunboat, a consequential and rather surly personage, shook his head, and said he would have to take time to consider the matter.
Time he certainly did take, and plenty of it. We were, however, well treated, chiefly through the kindness of the French-speaking officer, Lieutenant Hishidi, with whom I struck up an acquaintance, he being in fact the only one of the gunboat's crew with whom I could converse. He caused a small separate cabin to be extemporized for myself and Lin Wong, and looked to our comfort in other ways. My friend Lin, I should say, had received a nasty graze on the ribs of the right side from one of the machine-gun bullets, but otherwise was all right, though in a very chop-fallen condition at being made prisoner. He and I were allowed more liberty than the other captives, and apart from the detention had little to complain of.
I was naturally much interested at first in looking round me and taking stock of the Japanese sailors and their vessel. She was in superb fighting trim, beautifully clean and well found in every part, and the duty was carried on with thorough man-of-war smartness. It was impossible to watch these little active, clever, determined sailors without feeling that the men of the finest navy in the world, which I take to be that of her Britannic Majesty, would find in them foemen worthy of their steel. I remember that they were daily exercised at the guns, and the promptitude and precision with which they sank the Kowtung—such was the unlucky despatch-boat's name—was a handsome testimonial to the accuracy of their aim.
Lieutenant Hishidi and I had many conversations, chiefly during his watches, and our talk generally turned on the war and nautical matters. Of the Chinese he spoke with unmeasured contempt, certainly not undeserved, and said that the Japanese fleets and armies had no misgiving as to the result of the struggle; they felt able, against such opponents, to do anything and go anywhere—"aussi loin que mer et terre puissent nous mener," was his emphatic expression.
"We have been making this war for a long time," said he, "and we feel sure of what we can do."
I remarked on the extraordinary rapidity with which a nation, closed like the Japanese, up to within thirty years since, to European trade and European ideas, had adopted and assimilated the system of Western civilization.
"Yes," he replied, "we can learn, and we have learnt, because we saw that the knowledge would give us a great advantage in our own part of the world."
He had been in France, and expressed great admiration of French ship-building and French seamanship, and seemed doubtful when I maintained that British seamen would in case of war assert their superiority over the French ones just as decisively now as they ever had done in the past—and of naval history in general Hishidi had a good idea.
"You might," he said, "as your navy is so much larger than theirs."
But I pointed out that our naval triumphs had seldom been gained by superior force—"although," I admitted, "we certainly have now double the force of any other European power, on which account none of them dare attack us singly, as they know that if they did, the majority of their knocked-out tubs would be towing up the Downs in a very brief space of time. But numbers apart, the British sailor of to-day can still do more with a ship than a Frenchman. The conditions are certainly completely changed, but the best seaman will make the most of the new order."
He shook his head dubiously, and said he should like to see a war between England and France.
"Well," said I, "you may live to see that and not be an old man. You may live to see a war between England and half the rest of the world, and see England get the best of it. It has happened once or twice before."
On another occasion we were talking about Russia, when Hishidi remarked—
"Russia wants China."
"Russia wants everything," said I.
"Ah, that is what they say of you," replied he.
I once asked him what he thought of the torpedo.
"Well," said he, "the torpedo is as yet far from being thoroughly understood. It is very uncertain in use, though when it takes effect invariably deadly. Gun-fire should be able to neutralize it, that is, to keep it at a distance, for once struck, no sort of construction could resist the explosion of two hundred pounds of gun-cotton against the hull under the water line; water-tight compartments would be of no avail against such devastation. Vessels of the cruiser type, fast, and with a heavy quick-firing armament, are best suited to cope with torpedo-boats, which would find it difficult to get to close quarters with such craft. Warships have lately been built with a considerable increase of length, which of course increases a torpedo's chance of striking by giving it a larger target. Moderate size, no overloading with armour, speed, good coal supply, and as many quick-firing guns as can be mounted—that is my idea of the best type of warship at present. The policy of building monstrous ships is doubtful, when they can be sunk by a torpedo-boat. Under such conditions, it seems to me that ease and rapidity of manoeuvring is of more advantage than gigantic weight of ordnance and armour, because after all the torpedo's attack is directed against a part which nothing can render invulnerable."
Such is the substance of my conversation with the lieutenant, but despite the charms of intellectual intercourse, I soon began to get desperately weary of my detention. Day after day the Itsuku cruised about, sometimes in company with other craft, sometimes alone. The enemy kept well out of sight, and few events occurred to chequer the monotony. Once we sighted two Chinese gunboats not far from Chefoo, and the Japanese varied the day's drill and gun exercise by shelling them into Wei-hai-wei. They ran ignominiously and never made the least show of fight. Had the Itsuku been a faster vessel, she would undoubtedly have captured or destroyed one of them. Her maximum speed was under sixteen knots. On another occasion, off the western coast of the Liaotung, we came upon a fleet of junks, craft engaged in coast trade, I presume. Their crews ran them ashore and escaped, whilst the Japanese fired the stranded junks with shells, the officers amusing themselves by sighting the guns and betting on the shots. When a satisfactory bonfire had been created we steamed away.
This sort of thing, I have said, went on for more than a month. The gunboat's cruising-ground was chiefly about the mouth of the Pechili Gulf, now under the frowning forts of Wei-hai-wei, and now opposite Port Arthur on the other side. There did not seem to be any regular blockade of the Gulf, though Japanese warships were constantly hovering about. The Chinese fleet, I believe, confined itself to the modest seclusion of Wei-hai-wei harbour, and was not to be tempted outside. Once I asked Hishidi when they meant to assail Wei-hai-wei and Port Arthur?
"Oh," said he, "we are waiting our time; it has not come yet."
British war-vessels were frequently in sight, but to my requests to be put on board one of them, or at least to be brought before a Japanese admiral, the commander of the Itsuku—I have completely forgotten his name—turned a deaf ear. October wore away, and any termination of my captivity seemed as distant as ever. I was obliged to put an end to it on my own initiative. One evening—the fourth or fifth of November it would be—we were outside Port Arthur. At dusk the gunboat anchored, and a boat was despatched on some errand of reconnaissance. A point of the coast was less than a mile distant, and as I leant over the bulwark in the fore-part of the vessel, it struck me that I might easily swim off to it, if I could get into the water unobserved. Under Webster's tuition I had become an excellent swimmer. I looked round; I was apparently not under notice, and there was no light near where I was. My mind was made up at once. I stole as far forward as I could, and watching my opportunity, and steadying myself by the cathead, I made a leap for the cable, intending to climb down it to the water. A leap in the dark is proverbially a dangerous thing; the vessel perversely veered away as I sprang, and instead of catching the cable I soused into the water with a loud splash. The sentry on the gangway heard it, ran forward, and emptied the magazine of his rifle at me as I swam away, but by diving and swimming under water out of the direct line of advance, I managed to evade the bullets. A boat was soon down and in hot pursuit, but I had had a good start, and they were at a loss for my true direction at first. I struck out vigorously and made good headway, but had the disadvantage of swimming in my clothes; moreover, the water was frightfully cold, and began to chill me to the bone. I could tell, however, that the tide was strongly in my favour, and I believe I should have escaped the boat's notice, but that the people on shore, hearing, I suppose, the rifle-shots, turned on an electric search-light to see what was going forward. I was still a good quarter of a mile from the shore, and the boat was nearly as close in—almost parallel with me, though several hundred yards away. There was no fort near, but I could see the dark mass of one on a towering height far to the left. The bright glare soon showed me to my pursuers, who turned the boat's head towards me and gave way with might and main. They closed fast, and I gave myself up for lost. A heavy rifle-fire began crackling along the shore, and the balls frequently skimmed along the water disagreeably near me. I struggled on, but would inevitably have been retaken if the event had depended on my own efforts. There was a small coast battery near containing two or three mortars, and a shell was thrown at the boat as it held its daring course for the shore. It was not a hundred yards from me at the moment. I heard the scream of the projectile, saw it describing its flaring parabola in my direction, and with my last energies dived to avoid it. The sound of its explosion rang in my ears as I went under. When I came up again, the boat was putting back in a hurry with three or four oars disabled. How near to them the bomb had pitched I cannot say, but they had evidently got a good allowance of the splinters, though chance probably had more to do with the matter than marksmanship. The gunboat was under steam and standing in, returning the fire. I strained every nerve, and struggled ashore at last in such a numbed and exhausted state that I could not stand upright without assistance. I found myself surrounded by Chinese soldiers, who plied me with questions, which I could not have answered even if I had understood Chinese. Perceiving my condition, they took me off to a small building like a guard-house, some way to the rear of a line of trenches. They made a blazing wood fire in the middle of the stone floor, and when I had stripped off my wet clothes and was partially thawed, they renewed their interrogatories. I absolutely knew not a word of Chinese, and could only endeavour by gestures to give them an idea of what had happened. This was not very satisfactory, but they at least could make out that I was no friend to the Japanese. They jabbered away for a while amongst themselves, apparently discussing me. At length one of them brought me some food in a large wooden bowl—a strange mess of I know not what mysterious compounds, amongst which, however, I could distinguish rice. It was palatable and I ate it gladly, and asked, too, for a supplementary supply, which was not denied. Overcome by exhaustion and the fierce heat of the fire, a drowsy stupor came upon me, and I made signs that I wished to sleep. They did not seem to have any clothing to offer me for my own which was drying in the blaze, but they brought in several long, coarse cloaks or mantles, and one of them enveloping himself in these, stretched himself before the fire on the ground, to intimate to me that in such a manner I must pass the night. Another offered me a pipe of opium, which I knew it would be a great discourtesy, according to their ideas, to decline, although I was quite unaccustomed to the drug. I therefore took it and affected to smoke, and as I lay down, they left the little room in which they had placed me, and I heard them barricade the door outside.
I immediately fell into a profound slumber. The few whiffs of opium which, despite of myself, I had inhaled, had their effect, and produced a series of those magical dreams with which the drug tempts and deceives the novice. Through all of them the idea of flight and pursuit ran bewilderingly. I will give one as a specimen. I dreamt that I was on the shore of the sea; the waters suddenly began to rise, and threatened to overwhelm me. I turned and ran, but nearer and nearer the flood came after. Then there yawned across my path a precipice of which I could not see the bottom. Down I plunged. I seemed to fly like a bird, and once more stood on firm ground. The precipice seemed to reach to the sky behind me. I resumed my flight, and looking back, beheld the flood leaping down the gulf in a mighty volume, with the sun rising above it, and bathing the illimitable cataract with golden light. It would be impossible to describe or imagine the gorgeousness of the spectacle. With such visions as these does the treacherous narcotic lure its victims. I believe its use is forbidden by the Chinese military authorities, but the undisciplined soldiers seemed to use it extensively when they could get it, like tobacco.
I slept till the middle of the following day, and would in all probability have slept longer but that I was awakened by my hosts, if so I may term them. My clothes were quite dry; I got into them, and was escorted outside at once. The first thing I saw was a detachment of cavalry, mounted on little shaggy Tartar ponies. One of these I was invited to bestride, and a moment afterwards, without the possibility of explanations being either asked or given, we were en route.
I may as well say at once that the spot where I had come ashore was the land below the West Port, and I was being conveyed to the Man-tse-ying fort, one of the principal seaward fortifications. It has an elevation of 266 feet above the sea level, and the latter part of the ascent had to be made on foot. I was at once taken before the commandant, who with a few other officers and a secretary sat prepared to investigate the peculiar circumstances which had brought a Fan Quei, or foreign devil, amongst them. The secretary knew English very indifferently—so indifferently that I am doubtful if he understood my story rightly. He asked me if I was acquainted with German, and gave me to understand that he knew more of that language than of English; however, I did not know ten words of it. The examination was long, and, from the difficulty of understanding one another, confused enough. I gathered that I was, or had been, under suspicion of being a Japanese spy in the minds of those before whom I had been brought, and they rigorously questioned the men whom I had first seen as to the circumstances attending my landing. These, I consoled myself by reflecting, could not be deemed consistent with the supposition that I was an agent of the enemy. I was asked if there was any one in the town who could witness to my having been there previously under the circumstances I alleged. I replied that probably the people at the inn would remember me.
Finally the Chinamen held a lengthened consultation amongst themselves, at the end of which I was told that I would be taken forthwith before the higher authorities on the other side of the port. I hinted to the secretary that I had had nothing to eat that day and felt decidedly hungry. I was accordingly served before my departure with a meal of fish and boiled bread, with a cup of rice wine, a decoction which tasted like thin, sour claret. This done, I was placed in charge of my former escort, who struck across country from the rear of the Man-tse-ying, passed two or three other forts and numerous entrenchments and redoubts, and finally reached the water on the inner side of the long arm of land enclosing the West Port. Here, close by a torpedo store, I was put on board a sampan, a long, narrow boat, sharp at both extremities, with an awning. In this I was conveyed to the East Port and taken through the dockyards to the military head-quarters near the great drill and parade ground at the entrance to the town. It was late in the evening when we arrived there, and I was not brought up for examination until the next day. Here, to my great satisfaction, I found I had to deal with somebody who knew English well—a military aide-de-camp, who spoke the language with both fluency and correctness. To him I told my story plainly and straightforwardly, and by the testimony of my former landlord, Sen, and an official at the bank where I had changed my money, established my identity as the person who had passed two days in the town with Wong, and accompanied him on board the despatch-boat. This was sufficient to procure my release. Everything I said was very carefully noted down. My interrogation was conducted before a couple of mandarins. The Taotai I believe to have been absent from the place at this time. He is alleged to have deserted his position and to have been ordered back again. This may or may not be so, but it is undoubtedly the fact that he fled from Port Arthur the night before the Japanese attacked it. He does not appear to have been open to the accusation of heroism.
I was informed by the aide-de-camp that the port had been visited only a day or two before by the British warship Crescent, the officers of which had landed for a short while. Fate seemed resolved that I should have no chance of leaving the place without seeing in it something worth remembering, as I had no sooner returned to Sen's inn, which I did on my release, than I was seized with a kind of aguish fever, the effect, no doubt, of the exposure I had recently undergone. It was nothing serious, but caused a feeling of great lassitude and depression, and confined me indoors for some ten or twelve days. I had the place almost to myself, as the approach of the Japanese armies had not been favourable to custom, and the usual course of travel to and from the north had been suspended. Sen was anxious to learn from me whether I considered it advisable for residents and townspeople to leave the port. I replied, as I sincerely thought, that the Japanese, if they succeeded in taking the place, would do no harm to non-combatants. I was, however, fatally mistaken.
The inn was a place of two storeys—few Chinese habitations have more. Most of the rooms opened round a partially covered courtyard. I had a good one in the upper storey, or the "top-side," as it is expressed in "pidgin." There were no fireplaces; the apartments were chiefly warmed by charcoal in braziers. Along one side of that which I occupied was a long low hollow bench, filled with hot air from a furnace. This contrivance usually served me for a bed, for although they use bedsteads, there is nothing on them but an immense wadded quilt, in which you roll yourself up. I transferred it to the hot-air holder, which made a far warmer and more comfortable couch. I was waited on mostly by a lad named Chung, one of the professors of "pidgin." He was a native of Canton, had been in Hong Kong, and was well accustomed to Englishmen and their ways. The fare was very tolerable—poultry, pork, and various kinds of fish, but no beef, as the Chinaman deems it wrong to kill the animal that helps to till the ground. Chung told me that in the south cats and dogs are fattened for food, which it occurred to me would be a distinct advantage in Port Arthur at that time, with a siege imminent, and a great abundance of those animals observable. For drink I naturally had plenty of tea, though it is very washy stuff as made by the Chinese, who usually content themselves with putting the leaves in a cup and pouring hot water over them, flavouring the infusion with tiny bits of lemon.
As soon as I was sufficiently recovered to go out, I made an effort to find out whether there was any prospect of getting away from the place by sea, but soon found that this was hopeless to expect. No foreign vessels were in the port, and the native ones were chiefly junks, the proprietors of which, as interpreted by Chung, whom I took with me, refused to venture out unless for such a sum as I could by no possibility procure. There were no Chinese war-vessels in the harbour, and indeed they would have been of no use there.
Knowing that the fortress was a very strong one, I made up my mind that there would be a protracted siege, and my spirits fell as I surveyed the prospect, for my pecuniary resources were limited, and it seemed very unlikely that I would again see the Columbia in the port. However, my fears were groundless. Little did I think that within three days the place would be in the hands of the Japanese.
It was on November 18 that I made the fruitless attempt to negotiate for a passage. The appearance of the place had considerably changed since first I was in it. The numbers of the soldiery had obviously been largely increased. Industry was completely suspended in the dockyard, the whole of which had been converted into barracks. In returning from the wharves with Chung, I witnessed a specimen of military punishment. Passing the open gate of an enclosure near the clearing-house, I perceived a group which at once riveted my attention. A number of soldiers were standing round one who, stripped to the waist, was kneeling with his forehead stooped almost to the ground, and his hands tied behind, the thongs that bound them being held by a man standing close in his rear. Thus disposed, he received a tremendous flogging from a whip with a fearful heavy leathern lash, which made me think of the Russian knout. The blows fell with a thud that made my nerves shiver, and the back of the sufferer was covered with blood, which was thrown here and there by the ensanguined instrument of torture as it whistled through the air. He took his punishment, however, to use the language of the P.R., like a man, and though his body seemed to bend like a reed with each stroke, he never uttered a sound that I could hear. I did not count the lashes, but there was no stint in the allowance. Minute after minute the castigator laboured away in his vocation, until finally the victim collapsed, and rolling over, lay like a log in a pool of blood, and was then carried off. I was rather surprised to see a whip used, as I had always supposed the bastinado to be the favourite method of flagellation in China. I asked Chung for an explanation, but he did not seem to understand my question, and replied that the "one piecee ting (soldier) no hab muchee hurtee," and that they might if they had liked have cut off his "one piecee head." True it is that decapitation is a very common punishment in the Chinese army.
Strongly as the massacre by the Japanese troops in Port Arthur is to be condemned, there is not the slightest doubt in the world that the Chinese brought it on themselves by their own vindictive savagery towards their enemies. The attacking armies, advancing down the Peninsula in touch with the fleet, were now within a day or two's march of the inland forts. Bodies of Chinese troops harassed and resisted them, and brushes between the opposing forces frequently took place. The Chinese took some prisoners, whom they slew mercilessly, and one of the first things I saw on the morning of the 19th was a pair of corpses suspended by the feet from the branches of a huge camphor tree near the parade-ground. They were hideously mutilated. They had been disembowelled; the eyes were gouged out, the throat cut, and the right hand severed. They were perfectly naked, and groups of children were pelting them with mud and stones.
Similar ghastly spectacles were to be seen in other parts, both inside the town and beyond it. Nor was this the worst; the walls exhibited placards, in the sacred imperial yellow, inciting to these atrocities. This I know by means of Chung, whom I usually took out with me. The tenor, as he translated, was this:—"To the soldiers and subjects of the Celestial Lord of the Dragon Throne. So much for every Japanese dog alive. So much for his head or hand. In the name of the Sacred Son of Heaven," etc. Then came the date and the signature of the Taotai. The exact amount of the rewards I forget. I think it was fifty taels for a live prisoner, and a less amount for heads or hands. The bodies of the Japanese soldiers killed in encounters with the enemy as they closed on the place, were often found minus the head or right hand, sometimes both, besides being ferociously gashed and slashed. Corpses were still hanging on the trees when the fortress fell, and it is not surprising that their former comrades should have been maddened by the sight, though of course the officers are greatly to blame for permitting the fearful retaliation which ensued to be carried to such lengths. The massacre seems to have been allowed to continue unchecked until no more victims could be found.
This, however, is to anticipate. On the 19th the enemy were close upon the forts, and everything was bustle and commotion. Business was suspended nearly everywhere, and the movements of the troops were the chief attraction. Great crowds gathered in the vicinity of the general's pavilion overlooking the parade-ground, where a council was held in the afternoon. A strong armed force held back the mob. All the principal military officers arrived from their posts at the head of their staffs one by one. The Taotai was brought from his residence in a magnificent sedan-chair, carried by ten or twelve bearers. The pavilion itself is a splendid structure, adorned with the most gaudy and brilliant colours, and covered with Chinese characters beautifully worked in gold. The consultation lasted for at least three hours. I had only a distant view of Kung over the heads of the soldiers. The fighting outside continued, and on the next day more Japanese corpses had been brought in by the vengeful soldiery, and left for the rabble to amuse themselves with. I do not think that any Japanese was brought into the town alive.