With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations
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The bell–tower of the Legation was now made the head–quarters of the municipal government. Here the names of the members of the committees were posted, and all therefore knew to whom they could apply for any sort of work for which they were fitted. Notices were also posted containing scraps of news, translations of edicts, etc. This spot, therefore, became the general rendezvous. The tower stood at the junction of four roads, all shaded with trees, and was only once struck during the siege.
Rex was at work from morning till night, now carrying sand–bags, or building entrenchments, now distributing food, or taking his place with Ah Lo at some point which the Chinese were attacking and endeavouring to drive them off. Whatever he did Ah Lo was by his side, and the Chinaman?s great strength was invariably of considerable value.
One of the greatest privations which the besieged suffered at first was want of water. The Legation was amply supplied for ordinary wants, but it was feared that the immense extra demand would cause the wells to run short. Happily the rains were very heavy, and when it was found that the level of the water was maintained, the regulations as to supply became less stringent, and though little could be had for washing there was no lack of drinking water.
The hospital was one of the first things organized. At present the number of wounded and sick was small, but it was certain to increase rapidly. At the head was Dr. Poole of the British Legation, and Dr. Velde of the German. There were two or three lady doctors who had come in with the missionaries, a few regular nurses, and any number of volunteers. At present, however, there was small need for their services, as there were but five or six invalids to be attended to.
On the twenty–second there was a terrible alarm, for the guards of all the other Legations poured in suddenly. As the attack had not seemed to be specially severe, this for a time was unaccountable, but it appeared that the retiral had been made by order of Captain Thomann, the senior officer. The Ministers hastily met; Sir Claude Macdonald was appointed to the chief command, and orders were at once issued for the guards to return immediately to their posts. Had the Chinese known that the Legations had all been abandoned they could have occupied them without resistance, and the result would have been a terrible disaster.
On that day the besieged learned that one of their greatest dangers was fire. At three points the British Legation was particularly exposed to this danger. On the north the Hanlin Academy, which contained a magnificent collection of Chinese manuscripts, many of great age, was separated from the wall of the Legation where the stables were situated, and the out–buildings of the Minister?s house, by a narrow lane only a few feet wide. Behind the Chinese secretary?s house, which adjoined the wall, were several native buildings, while the southeast corner of the Legation was threatened in a similar way.These houses were all built in quadrangular form, and the central courtyard was covered in summer by a mat roof. At five o?clock in the afternoon the Boxers fired one of these sheds. The flames leapt up fiercely, and the secretary?s house became at once involved. There was a general rush to the spot, and men dashed into the kitchens and outhouses adjoining the wall and began to strip down all the woodwork, and to carry out everything portable, the Chinese meanwhile keeping upon them a harassing fire from every available point.
The moment the work was done and the danger over, volunteers hurried off to demolish the buildings adjoining the south stables, and, working far into the night, succeeded in doing so. It was not thought that any real danger could arise from the Hanlin, which was considered sacred by the Chinese, as it was full of memorial and literary tablets. It contained the finest library in the empire, and was the repository of the state records. At the same time it was thought prudent to open a passage through the lane into the building in order to prevent its being occupied by the Chinese.
Captain Poole called upon Rex and a few others to join him in the work. They had only just begun when someone ran up to them with the news that smoke was issuing from the building. They worked desperately. The danger was great, for a strong wind was blowing. A body of marines was at once called up, and a hole having been knocked through the wall of the building they poured in. Fighting sharply they drove the Boxers from the building, and then endeavoured to extinguish the fire, but in vain. All then set to work to prevent the fire from spreading to the buildings of the Legation. Water was brought up, buildings demolished, trees cut down. Fortunately the wind at this moment fell, and although the backs of the outhouses and stables were charred and blackened, they did not catch fire. The great hall was occupied as soon as the fire burnt down, and a wall having been built to cut off from the ruins, it was held till the end of the siege. Thus the efforts of the Chinese to bring about the destruction of the besieged only left them stronger than before.
While the inmates of the British Legation had been thus occupied, other fires were raging, one near the French and another near the American Legation. At the latter the Russo–Chinese Bank was fired, and the Americans, aided by Chinese Christians, had desperate work to save the Legation. All the houses in Legation Street, from this point to the Chien M?n, were destroyed.
All next day firing was maintained heavily from every possible point. The Boxers kept up a continuous fire, to which our men replied but slowly, as the orders against waste of ammunition were very stringent, everyone being forbidden to fire unless he could clearly see his man. On this day the Chinese began shell–fire with the gun that they had mounted at the Chien M?n. The American Legation was struck once, the German several times, but for the most part the shells flew overhead.
As it was evident that if the Chinese planted guns on the Tartar wall they would command the whole of the Legations, the Americans and Germans, who were nearest to the wall, went out to seize it. They were very stoutly opposed, but they advanced steadily, firing volleys which effected terrible destruction among the Chinese gathered there, and pushed on until they came to a barricade on which two guns were mounted in a position too strong to be attacked by so small a force. They occupied the wall, however, along the whole line fronting the two Legations, erected a barricade on it behind the American Legation, and another beyond the German Legation. In order to accomplish this they made such a demand for sand–bags that the bell which was ringing for service, for it was Sunday, was stopped and everyone set to work to make them. Just as the work began the alarm–bell rang out. A fire had broken out near the south stables. Some of the houses at this point had been destroyed two days before, but many were still standing. There was a large house in the stable–yard. This had originally been built for the use of the escort, but had been handed over to the consular students, who, having grown too numerous for the accommodation, were in their turn superseded by the missionaries. The missionaries, however, had occupied it but a short time, as the upper stories had been handed over to the marine guard. It was a dangerous position, for near it was situated a market known as the Mongol Market, and from the houses on the opposite side of this the enemy kept up a constant fire.
To the left of the escort house was a gate in the wall leading to the market, which was principally used for the sale of firewood and fodder. From this gate the houses extended along the wall as far as the Temple, which had been pulled down a few days before. The enemy set fire to these houses, but it was round the wall that the battle was serious. The enemy had advanced close to the walls, and, setting up their flag there, poured a continuous stream of bullets into the burning house, and especially against the door. Had this fallen they would have been able to fire straight into the yard. Volunteers rushed up and began to pull down the stables nearest to the door, and to build up a wall some eight feet thick behind it. The door was already on fire. Some deluged it with water, others worked in the smoke to build the wall. Captain Halliday and a party of marines went out by the breach in the wall on the north and charged through the burning houses to clear out the enemy. This he succeeded in doing, although he was himself seriously wounded, and in three hours the danger was past. The attack, however, had been of great advantage to the besieged, for the Chinese had destroyed all the buildings adjoining the Legations, and had in a few days accomplished what must otherwise have been done by the defenders at the cost of enormous labour.
From that time forward, although they were exposed to great danger at times, the garrison was free from any anxiety about fire.
The next day was comparatively quiet. The lower veranda of the First Secretary?s house needed barricading, for several bullets had made their way in. That morning two of the ponies which had been shot there during the night were cut up and distributed. This was the first experience the besieged had of pony–meat, and at first they tasted it with considerable doubt. Henceforth, however, it became the regular fare, and was received with general approval. It made excellent soup, and though, when cooked in a joint, it was apt to be hard, it was very good with curry or rissoles.
In the afternoon the firing suddenly ceased and a man bearing a white flag took his place on the north bridge, with a board on which was written in Chinese: “Imperial command: To protect the Ministers and stop firing; a despatch will be sent to the bridge of the canal.”
This caused great excitement. Some suggested that the reinforcements might be at last at hand, others thought that it was a trap to throw us off our guard. The experienced were of opinion that it was merely a sign of the vacillation that existed among the Empress and her advisers, and that Prince Ching and Jung Lu had for the moment got the upper hand and persuaded the Empress of the madness of the course that was being taken. The day went on, however, and no despatch was sent in. The time was employed in strengthening barricades. The Chinese, too, made good use of the interval by erecting a barricade across Legation Street, facing that adjoining the Russian and American Legations. At midnight a tremendous fire was opened on the Legations from all sides. Shells frequently passed overhead, and the Legations were swept by a hail of bullets. Everyone was up and ready to repel an attack, but none was made, and after an hour the fire ceased as suddenly as it had begun. It was evident that the war party were again in the ascendant.
All sorts of reports were current the next day. The besieged had learned that the Taku Forts were captured on the eighteenth, and they began to calculate that the relieving force might arrive on the twenty–eighth.
Everywhere the native Christians worked unremittingly at the barricades, which were now so strengthened as to be very formidable obstacles to an attack. Orders were issued that bomb–proof shelters should be formed, and that the inmates of each house should construct them for themselves. Pits were dug out to a depth of four feet; these were roofed in with timbers on which earth was piled to a depth of some feet. Many of these shelters were completed, but the ladies almost unanimously agreed that they would prefer to run the risk of shells rather than bury themselves in such holes, for the tremendous rains that came on occasionally almost flooded the ground, and, running in at the entrances to the pits, converted the floors into sheets of liquid mud.
Rex managed every day to get half an hour?s chat with his cousins. They were both employed as assistants in the hospital kitchen, carrying the soups, broth, and other food to the patients, of whom there were now some thirty or forty. These, thanks to the excellent medical attention, nursing, and cooking, were almost without exception doing well, and during the whole siege there was no single death due to disease generated by foul air or septic conditions.
The girls were both cheerful and enjoyed their work. Being the assistants of the lady who superintended and for the most part carried out the cooking, they occasionally got a share of dainty dishes which were sent back untasted, and so fared better than the majority. Their work allowed them but little time for thought or anxiety, and their only fear was that Rex might be wounded; but as they saw him coming in every day fresh and cheerful, even this fear gradually died out. His stories of the siege amused them, especially his accounts of the different ways in which different people took their misfortunes: some being always cheerful and ready to make fun of everything, while others grumbled at every petty hardship, and seemed to consider themselves as specially injured by the whole proceedings.
Rex himself had only had to fight on two or three occasions, for the barriers were all held by the marines and guards of the various Legations, while the civilians, although formed into corps, and ready in case of attack to rush to any threatened point, had so far not been called upon for service. At night, however, they took turns to keep watch at exposed positions, and during the day worked at whatever might be most required. The students were formed into a corps by themselves, and Rex acted with them. They occupied a crowded quarter, but were full of life and spirit, made light of their work, and at night formed quite a merry party.
“I am afraid you are very hard worked, Rex,” Jenny said one day.
“Not a bit of it,” he replied. “My hands were very much blistered the first two or three days, but they have got hard now, and my back has quite forgotten how to ache. As far as I am concerned I quite enjoy it, and I could not be living among a better set of fellows.”
“I suppose you will get harder work shortly, but up to the present time there have been very few casualties.”
“It is quite certain now that we have regular troops fighting against us; that is shown by their new method of attack. Instead of making an onset on one point at a time, they now assail us from all points simultaneously. The fires all took place on the same day, and that tremendous bombardment two nights ago began all round at the same moment. That can?t be the work of the Boxers.”
“Then it will be more serious?”
“No, I don?t know that it will be much more serious, except that no doubt they will bring up their cannon and plant them closer than they are now. But this development shows that Prince Tung?s party has not got the entire control over the Empress. A proclamation has been stuck up at the tower to–day appointing several Chinese generals to the command of the Boxers. It is certain now that we have got to depend entirely upon ourselves. It is also certain that Seymour has either been annihilated or obliged to fall back. I consider it absurd to calculate that, now that the Taku Forts have fallen, an army will come up from the coast and arrive here in a few days. After the now certain failure of Seymour?s expedition it is evident that a much stronger column must be employed, and such a force can hardly have been gathered yet. Then the railway, which has no doubt been destroyed between Tientsin and the sea, will have to be repaired. As we know that the cathedral at that place has been burnt, there can be no doubt that the settlement has been besieged. The Boxers there are probably in great force, and these will have to be cleared out before any attempt can be made to relieve us. I certainly should not say so to anyone else, but my own opinion is that we shall be lucky if we see the head of the relieving party before another month.”
“A month! You don?t mean to say that! Why, we shall all be starved out long before that!”
“It is wonderful how one can hold on if necessary,” Rex said. “No doubt we shall be put upon half–allowance, and the number of mouths to be fed is tremendous, but we still keep on discovering stores in the houses and shops within the line, and these have never been methodically searched yet. We have also got the ponies to eat. Fortunately the native Christians are not accustomed to a meat diet, so the ponies will last the Europeans a good long time. I don?t know whether there are any rats in the Legations,” he said with a laugh. “According to the accounts of most sieges, when the garrison were reduced to an extremity they always seem to have maintained themselves on rats. I dare say they are not bad eating if one is driven to it.”
“I haven?t seen any rats,” Jenny said with a little shudder, “and I hope I shan?t see one, either alive or cooked. I am sure I could manage very well with a little rice or flour and tea.”
“I am afraid that tea would not sustain us long, but I agree with you that as long as the rice and flour hold out we can do so. We have, I believe, a pretty good stock of tinned food, sugar, tea, cocoa, and so on, and the pressure will come more upon the unfortunate coolies than upon us. It is only fair to them to say that they are working splendidly, and if we hold out it will be largely due to them, for almost all the barricade work has fallen on them. The fighting men are, of course, always on guard; the rest of us are all told off to work of some sort or other: sanitary work, the distribution of food and seeing to the wants of everyone, and, during the past two or three days, the erection of shell–proof shelters. The hard work falls to the Chinese. They are wonderfully patient, obedient, and hard–working, and expose themselves fearlessly everywhere. I am coming to have great respect for them. There is no giving way at all among them. They have lost everything they have in the world, but they show no signs of despondency. They take everything that comes as a matter of course, and sometimes, when I go among them when the fire is heavy, I hear them praying out aloud. Well, I must be off again.”