With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations
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“Ah! there is the dinner–bell. At any rate we can for the present enjoy our meals; we may not have much to enjoy in that way presently.”
They had scarcely sat down when there was an outbreak of musketry fire and a call for reinforcements. All had brought their rifles into the room with them, and, catching these up, they ran out. The fight was over, however, before they got to the scene. It was upon the north bridge that the sentries had been firing. A party of Boxers had come down from that direction, and after a volley had been poured into them, had charged, but had fallen back on receiving another, leaving two of their number dead upon the ground. Two wounded also were taken prisoners.
During the night they were several times aroused by the sounds of volley–firing, but as these were not followed up, no one stirred. They learned in the morning, however, that the Boxers had come down from all the various roads leading to the Legations, but had retired on finding that they were strongly guarded.
The next morning the Boxers started a number of large fires in the west, and as reports came in of the massacres of Christians in that quarter, Dr. Morrison, the Times correspondent, got together a relief party, who went out and brought in a large convoy of refugees, and terrible tales of the scenes of slaughter that they had witnessed.
So far the Ministers had done nothing to save these unfortunate people, being apparently afraid of giving the Chinese Government the excuse for declaring war against them for their interference between the different classes of their subjects, and for the present, though they were protected, they were given no rations, and were dependent entirely on what small supplies they brought in with them, or the charity of the merchants and traders. Later in the siege, however, they rendered invaluable service, and it was to their zealous labour that the safety of the Legations was finally due. They were housed in Prince Su?s palace, which was generally called the Fu, and their occupation of this was in itself of immense service, as the artificial hills in its grounds commanded the east walls of the British Legation, and covered the Japanese and French Legations from the artillery fire in their rear.
After breakfast Rex, Sandwich, and several other student interpreters went round the whole line of defence. The barricades were extremely weak and only calculated to check for a moment the rush of the enemy; they consisted merely of Chinese carts turned on their sides across the road. Beyond, however, the quiet and deserted streets spoke eloquently of the threatened danger. Sentries were thrown out well along these, and within that range a few of the European shops kept their doors open, and officers and servants of the Legations went out and bought provisions. No great effort had been made to gather in stores, as the general conviction was that Admiral Seymour?s column would soon be up.
The next day a fire was started near the tower known as the Chien M?n, the great gate leading into the Chinese city.It began in a shop which did a great sale in foreign medicines, and spread rapidly. The people worked hard to carry off their property to a place of safety, and for the most part conveyed it through the gate and stowed it away in a moat which was at that time dry. The whole quarter was soon in flames, and frequent explosions were heard as the flames reached the shops stored with petroleum and fireworks. The conflagration raged all day. Towards five o?clock the fire spread to two small arcades running through the gates, and the wooden shops blazed up furiously. The flames ultimately reached the beams supporting the roof of the tower, and in a short time the whole edifice was in flames, presenting a splendid spectacle.
Rex spent the greater part of the day watching the fire, and brought his cousins out to look at it.
“Why should the Chinese wish to burn their own town?” Mabel asked.
“Simply because they are savage brutes. It is perfectly astounding that all these quiet patient shopkeepers do not fall upon the Boxers and smash them up. I should say that millions of pounds worth of damage has been done already, for all the principal trading quarters have been destroyed. One can understand the people looking on placidly while the European buildings are burnt, but when it comes to their own houses one would have thought that the most peaceful and quiet people would be excited to madness and would attack with fury the scoundrels who are doing all this damage. I think they would anywhere else in the world. I cannot see what the Boxers expect to gain by it. At present they are practically doing nothing against us, and are simply destroying the property of their own people. In one respect they are absolutely benefiting us, for they are making a great clearance round our lines, and are thereby adding to our power of defence; for however brave the Boxers may be they will hardly face our rifles across that open space.”
All this time the attitude of the Chinese soldiers was friendly. Those on guard at the Chien M?n did not interfere with parties of sight–seers who went out there. Occasionally they were seen to fire at the Boxers, and although there were one or two affrays with them these were brought on by the recklessness of the Russians and Germans, who fired upon them without any reason.
The next morning Rex saw a party of marines with a few civilians going out of the gate, and hearing that they were to attack a temple in which the Boxers were torturing some Christians, he called to Ah Lo and followed them. The building lay a little to the north of the Austrian Legation. They surrounded the place and effected an entrance, when they found that the Boxers, having fastened their captives to the walls, were performing incantations preparatory to murdering them. They opened fire at once. The Boxers made desperate attempts to escape, but as they were hemmed in on all sides, every one of them was shot, and their captives were then released and brought into the Legations.
The Russians were that day busy in pulling down some houses which lay near their Legation. At present the British authorities were still in doubt, and although there were many houses near which would have constituted a great danger to the defence had they been fired, no attempt was made to imitate the example of the Russians.
“The apathy that our people display is perfectly astounding,” Rex said that evening as the students were chatting together. “Everyone else, as far as I see, is conscious of the tremendous danger, and yet Ministers allow themselves to be continually humbugged by the Empress and her advisers. They really seem to be inviting disaster.”
“It certainly is remarkable,” Sandwich said. “We shall be lucky indeed if we don?t suffer for it. Even in the matter of provisions their negligence is astonishing. If we had set to work at once when the danger began we could have brought in all the stores within a quarter of a mile round and should have been in a position to carry on the siege for three months. As it is we are little more than living from hand to mouth, and if the streets round us were burned, as those by the Chien M?n gate were, we should not have ten days? provisions left in the place. I do hope that the Boxers will make so earnest an attack that the big–wigs can no longer close their eyes to the danger of the situation. Of course it is heresy for us to say so, but it is what every man here, outside the official circle, thinks.”
“Yes,” another said. “I have no objection to any amount of fighting, but I do object to fight on an empty stomach when there is no reason whatever why we should be fasting. I suppose your cousins are all right, Bateman?”
“Yes, they are quite recovered and are ready for anything – to load as we fire, or to exist on a dry crust. You know how they have suffered at the hands of the Boxers, and they will go through anything to see them routed.”
“Well, there is one comfort,” another put in, “when the Boxers do attack us in force there can be no more shilly–shallying. The ambassadors must see then that we have to stand a siege, and will have to make an effort to get some provisions in. I have not a shadow of fear that we shall not be able to beat off the Boxers and regular troops too, but I am afraid of hunger.”
“So am I,” Rex agreed. “Two ounces of bread and a drink of water is a very poor regime to fight on. Thank goodness we have plenty of wells in the Legations, and shall not have thirst to fight against; but water pure and simple is a pretty poor diet.”
Sunday the seventeenth passed quietly, except that there was a fight between the Germans and the Chinese regular troops, for which the former were to blame. The next day a courier arrived from Tientsin with the news that the Roman Catholic Cathedral there had been burnt down. No news had come of the relief force, and there was a general feeling of disquietude concerning it. On Tuesday a man who had been sent off with letters to Tientsin returned, saying that he had been unable to make his way through. The day passed tranquilly; everyone was still discussing the expected arrival of the admiral, and fears began to be entertained for the first time that he might fail to reach Pekin, or that, even if he did, he might not be able to fight his way out again, cumbered as he would be by the non–combatants from all the Legations. The barricades, however, were being gradually strengthened, and supplies could still be bought from the shops round them.
As evening approached it was reported that the Ministers were about to hold a council, and it leaked out that an ultimatum had been received from the Tsung–li–yamen, calling upon them to leave the city the next day, as the allies had threatened to take the Taku Forts. The question was discussed at the gathering, and the feeling was unanimously against going. All felt that no confidence whatever could be placed in any undertaking the Chinese might give to protect the convoy on its way down. If they were to decide on retiring they would require a large number of carts to carry food, for they could not possibly now desert the native Christians, and with only six or seven hundred men to protect the long line, it was morally certain that the whole would be massacred on the way down. The council agreed, therefore, that it was better for the Europeans to stay and defend themselves to the last than to place the smallest confidence in the sincerity of the Chinese or their promises of an escort.
There was a general feeling of relief throughout the Legations when it became known that the Ministers had answered guardedly. Their reply, indeed, was simply an enquiry as to what amount of transport would be supplied, and what would be the strength of the escort. They were not aware that Admiral Seymour was retreating at the time, and that the Taku Forts had been already captured.
The next morning the Ministers met again. No message had been received from the yamen, and the German Minister set out with only his secretary and a couple of Chinese servants to go to the yamen and ask for their reply. On the way he was attacked and killed, and his secretary was wounded. Although the loss of life was to be regretted, the affair was in one respect a most fortunate one, for it showed the Ministers how critical their position was. It was clear now that if the life of one of the Ministers on his way to the courts was not respected, even the most timid could no longer place the smallest confidence in the promises of the Empress and her counsellors. The situation was at once changed. There was no longer any hesitation, no longer any feeble hope in the promises of the Chinese Ministers; there was nothing to do but to fight, and at once the apathy that had come over the Legations was at an end. Nothing was thought of but defence.
The whole strength of the Legations was now employed in building strong barricades and in collecting stores. The first was important, the second even more so. Those searching for stores met with unexpected good luck. Two of the three foreign stores lay within the line of defence, and all the provisions in the third were speedily brought in. The searchers came upon a large wheat–shop crammed with grain, a large store of fodder was found within the line, and in many other shops large or small stores of provisions and eatables were discovered and secured. A store of coal was also discovered, and all through the day provisions were brought in in carts or by hand. From all the other Legations the people began to pour in, as it was decided that the British Legation was the most defensible, and must be the rallying–place. This building presented a wonderful scene of confusion. Ministers, their secretaries and servants, civilians, sisters from the mission, a few European traders and merchants all mingled together, talking in half a dozen languages.
The American mission brought in with them one thousand seven hundred Christians, who were placed in the Fu; seventy missionaries were encamped in the little chapel; the Legation students moved their beds into their mess–room, and gave up their quarters to the visitors; the second secretary?s house was given up to the Russians, and the doctor?s to the Americans. Every room in the Legations was closely packed, and many took up their quarters under the numerous verandas. Four American ladies were lodged in the room hitherto occupied by Rex?s cousins, and the girls were greatly interested in the crowd and bustle, which was all novel and strange to them after their quiet life in the mission–house at Chafui. The ball–room of the Minister?s house was given up to the ladies, and their beds were so closely packed that it resembled a great hospital. The military officials were encamped in tents, while many others were prepared to sleep in the open air. Boxes, bundles, and bales were piled and scattered everywhere. Some people, while working actively, laughed and joked, others sat disconsolate and miserable. All the unemployed men at the Legation worked hard helping the immigrants and trying to effect a semblance of order.
Four o?clock was the hour at which the ultimatum expired, and exactly at that hour firing began, and one man was killed and another wounded. The artillery available for the defence was absurdly small; the Italians had a one–pounder, the Americans a Colt, the Austrians a machine–gun, and the British an old Nordenfeldt, which could not be relied upon to fire a half dozen shots without jamming. The supply of rifle ammunition was also exceedingly meagre; the Japanese had but one hundred rounds apiece, the Italians one hundred and twenty, the Russians one hundred and forty–five, while the French, Germans, and British had from this up to three hundred.
In the course of the afternoon the marines had captured and driven in small flocks of sheep and three or four cows. The garrison had, however, to depend for meat principally upon the ponies and mules belonging to the officers of the various Legations and the merchants and missionaries. Of these upwards of one hundred and fifty were tied up in various parts of the Legation. In other respects the provisions that had been collected – wheat and rice, groceries of all sorts, wines and spirits – were sufficient to supply the whole occupants of the Legations for a considerable time.
Now that the suspense was at an end and they knew what was before them, all went about their work with brightened faces and an air of energy and determination that had for weeks been wanting. If a stranger had looked in upon them he would hardly have guessed that the die had just been cast and that the issue was battle, and battle against overpowering odds. All were ready to meet the worst.
Directly after the first outburst of firing it was reported that the Austrians had, for no apparent reason, abandoned their Legation without an attempt at defence. Though within the line of defence, the Austrian Legation was a separate outpost; but its abandonment necessitated the withdrawal of men from the customs–house, which lay behind it, and was a strong and well–constructed building. All the customs staff were therefore ordered to retire to the British Legation, and at the same time the British advance post on the north bridge across the canal between our Legation and the Fu had to be called in. All this caused the day which had been so bright and hopeful to end with a feeling of depression.
Rex had been busy all day bringing in and piling stores and turning his hand to work of all kinds. In the evening he went in and had a chat with the girls.
“We are all glad,” he said, “that it has been settled at last that we are to stay here and fight. The murder of the German Minister was the very best thing that could happen to us, for it opened the eyes of all the others, and showed them that the Chinese were, as everyone else knew, wholly untrustworthy. We really were afraid yesterday that the Ministers would accept the Chinese offer to send an escort down with us. If they had done so, it is absolutely certain that none of us would ever have reached Tientsin. As it is, we all believe that we can hold out for a month at least, and perhaps a good bit longer. You may be sure that every nation will spare no effort to gather a force sufficient for our relief.
“It is a pity that we have not a better stock of ammunition. If there is fighting every day, three hundred rounds, which is all the most fully–supplied have got, will not go very far, and ammunition is a thing we cannot manufacture. I doubt, however, whether the Chinese will attack us in earnest, and I am certain that if they do, we shall repulse them as long as ammunition holds out, and even after that we shall make a pretty stiff fight with the bayonets and other weapons. At any rate, girls, it will be a long while before I have to tell you to put on your native dresses again, and before I begin to look out for some quiet spot on the walls where I can let you down when the defence is finally over.”
“If the worst comes to the worst,” said Jenny, “I have no doubt you will rescue us somehow. We have absolute faith in you and Ah Lo. I shall do whatever you tell us without hesitation.”
“You may be sure that I shall leave nothing undone to secure your safety, but we won?t think of that for a long time yet.”
Next day it was found that the Belgian embassy had been burnt down in the night. As it was some distance from the rest, however, the destruction was of no consequence. It was now decided that the semicircular barricade in front of the entrance to the Legation should be strengthened and the Nordenfeldt placed upon it in such a position as to command the roads by the side of the canal to the north bridge. To enable the gun to do its work properly, however, it was necessary that a line of young trees by the side of the canal should be cut down. This was a particularly dangerous operation, for a party of Boxers had established themselves behind the bridge, and were ready to pick off anyone who approached the trees. The Japanese, however, had built a brick bar across the road on their side of the canal, and the guard there managed to some extent to keep down the fire of the Boxers, while the man who had volunteered to cut down the trees bravely proceeded to carry out this work. He was a powerful man, and refused all assistance. He accomplished his task without being hit, though he several times had marvellous escapes; but unfortunately, two days later, he was killed while engaged on similar service at another point.
By this time things were settling down a little in the British Legation, where nearly the whole of the fugitives from outside and the members of the other Legations were assembled. A general committee was organized, at the head of which were several very energetic civilians. This was divided into several sub–committees, each charged with a particular class of work. Some attended to the sanitary arrangements, others to the more equitable distribution of the available space; some undertook the commissariat arrangements, others the maintaining of the barricades. All the ladies in the Legation were now employed in sewing sand–bags. The available canvas was speedily used up, and other materials had to be impressed: sheets, curtains, and hangings of all kinds, table–linen, old dresses, pillow–cases, and in fact every article that could possibly be applied for such a purpose. Parties of coolies opened a road through the south wall of the British Legation and the intervening houses into the lane at the back of the Russian Legation, so that the Americans and Russians could have easy access to the British Legation, and could retire into it if unable to maintain themselves.
A party of volunteers set to work, and built a brick wall in place of the wooden balustrade on the upper veranda of the First Secretary?s house. This was a large building, and offered a fine mark to the Chinese on the Tartar wall, who had indeed rendered it quite uninhabitable.
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