With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations
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“There is very little to tell, sir.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Bateman, there must be a good deal to tell, and as you must be perfectly well aware that you ought not to have left the Legation without permission, the least you can do is to give us a full account of your reasons for doing so, and of the manner in which you carried out your adventure. Now, please, begin at the beginning and tell us how you learned that the people were in hiding.”
Beginning, therefore, with his meeting with the Chinaman, Rex told the story, ending with: “There, sir, I said at the beginning that there was really nothing to tell, and that it was the simplest thing in the world.”
“I do not quite agree with you. Mr. Bateman. I think my friends here will all join with me in saying that it was an admirably planned and well carried out scheme, and it cannot, I am sure, be otherwise than a matter of intense gratification to yourself that you have saved these twelve poor people from a terrible death. It does you very great credit, sir, but I hope that you will not undertake any more enterprises of this kind without speaking to me beforehand. I am commander–in–chief of the forces here, and before any of my officers undertake enterprises that might deprive me of their services they must have my consent.”
As soon as the meal was over, Rex ran back to his quarters.
“Is there anything left to eat, Sandwich?” he asked.
“Yes, we put some by for you.”
“That is a comfort. The governor asked me to breakfast with him, and I had scarcely got down two or three mouthfuls when he asked me to tell him all about that affair last night, and as a fellow cannot talk and eat at once, I fared very badly. What have you got?”
“There is half a pot of jam and boiled rice.”
“That will do first–rate. Where are you going to work to–day?”
“We are going over to the Fu, and are just starting.”
“Well, I will come across when I am done, and so get out of the way of being jawed at. I suppose we shan?t come back till dusk. That will suit me admirably, for there is sure to be something else fresh during the day, and by to–morrow this business of mine will be forgotten.”
On the way down to the Fu Rex was captured by a party on the search for volunteers to drive a hole through the south walls, in order that a watch could be placed there to see that the Chinese were not mining in that direction. The day was tremendously hot, and as the wall was well built the labour was extremely exhausting. It was therefore a relief when they were called off to take any measures that might be necessary at the stable–house. The Chinese had mounted a gun at the barricade on their side of the Mongol Market and opened fire on the stable–house. Four shells crashed, one after another, into the stable–house, and the marines had to evacuate the upper story, and the whole building was so damaged that it was in danger of falling. Several shells also burst over the hospital.One entered it, and another killed a pony just outside it. The marines kept up a steady musketry fire on the Chinese who were working the gun, and soon managed to drive them off. In the evening the gun again began firing, this time aiming at the door of the stable–yard. As, however, the newly–built wall behind it was ten feet thick they effected no serious damage, and the next morning the gun was removed; and it was not again brought into play.
This cessation of fire was singular, as, though it had failed to breach the wall behind the door, it could certainly have destroyed with a few shot the old wall beside the door. Half a dozen guns placed here would have brought the whole wall down in a very short time and laid our defences open. All sorts of explanations were suggested, but the general idea was that the Chinese officer commanding at that point must have been secretly in favour of the defenders of the Legation, and anxious that total destruction should not be effected, either because he was favourable to the Christian doctrine or feared the vengeance that would follow by the united powers of Europe.
While the fire on the stable–house was continuing, a strong attack had been directed against the barricades of the French Legation. The Chinese lines had been pushed up so close that the fighting was almost hand to hand. M. von Rosthorn, the Austrians? charg? d?affaires, was fighting here, with his brave wife, a lady who had taken more than her share in the defence. She endeavoured to destroy the Chinese barrier by throwing upon it straw dipped in petroleum. The Chinese retorted with showers of stones, by one of which M. Rosthorn was somewhat severely wounded. Throughout the siege this lady evinced an amount of courage that was the astonishment of the troops. When Rex went back in the evening from the Fu he looked into the hospital to see the girls. They ran up to him eagerly, crying breathlessly: “Oh, Rex, everyone is talking about your going out and bringing in a party of men and women!”
“Well, then, I wish to goodness they would find something better to talk about. There is nothing in the thing at all. A Chinaman who had come in told me that the party was in hiding, and guided Ah Lo and me to the place. Of course they were glad enough to come out, and we had no adventure at all on the way, except that three Boxers came up and interfered with us, and we had to cut two of them down. The other bolted, and we then got over the wall, made a circuit through the fields, and climbed back over the wall behind the American Legation. I am quite sick of hearing about it, as if there was nothing else to talk about. It is quite ridiculous.”
“Well, people must have thought it was something out of the way, because a notice about it was posted up on the tower early in the morning, and another report that Sir Claude was praising your action very much. Lots of people have come in to tell us about it.”
“It is a pity they hadn?t something better to do,” Rex grumbled. “I am quite sick of the subject; let us talk about something else.”
“This is the first time I have seen you cross, Rex,” said Jenny.
“Well, it is enough to make one cross, having such a fuss made about nothing. Now, how are you getting on here?”
“We are all right, though some shells burst over the house this afternoon, which made us fairly jump.”
“Yes, I know; they gave us quite a start, but we could see that no great harm had been done.”
“The heat has been awful; we have knocked out all the panes of the upper windows to try and get a little air in, but we have all been feeling it very much, and of course you must have felt it more. I really don?t know how we should get on if we were not allowed off duty for two hours each evening, when we can go out and enjoy the cool air.”
“Yes, it must be terribly trying,” Rex said. “It must be worse for you in that stifling room inside than it is for us, even working in the sun.”
That night a small party of marines and volunteers went out and endeavoured to capture the gun on the other side of the market–place, but the Chinese stood firm, and they were obliged to retire without having effected anything. They were very well satisfied in the morning, however, when they found that the gun had been removed during the night.
The next day, the last of June, the fight raged round the French Legation, and although all men, not otherwise employed, who could use a rifle went to the assistance of its defenders, things went badly. A considerable portion of the Legation was burned, and the defenders were driven back step by step; but when the Chinese were distinctly getting the best of it their fire ceased, without any apparent reason, and the wearied defenders and the Chinese coolies had time to put up fresh barricades.
At nine o?clock a very heavy thunderstorm burst over the city, and at the same time firing was renewed with fresh vigour. Cannon, machine–guns, and rifles added their roar to the rumble of the thunder, and their puny flashes to the vivid sheets of lightning. The firing ceased by daylight, and the day passed without any serious disturbance. The next day, however, began badly. The Chinese concentrated their attempts against the German and American barricades on the wall; they had advanced their works to within a hundred yards of the Germans and mounted a gun there, from which they maintained a constant fire. It was difficult to send up reinforcements, for there was no shelter between the Legations and the foot of the wall, and several were killed as they tried to cross. The American barricade on the west was very open, as the Chinese guns at the Chien M?n gates commanded it. On the night of the 30th of June the enemy threw up a new barricade within two feet of the American one.
On the 2nd of July, at daybreak, the Chinese stormed the German barricade and drove its defenders from the wall. The Americans, seeing their own rear open to attack, hurriedly left the defence and ran down to their Legation. This was a grievous misfortune. The Ministers all met at the British Legation, and decided that the wall must be retaken at whatever cost, as the Chinese were placing guns upon it that would sweep the whole position. No time was lost. A body of marines, Americans, British, and Russians, were collected, and, led by Colonel Myers, dashed boldly forward and drove the Chinese back along the wall. The enemy had taken no steps whatever to strengthen their position, or even to mass any body of troops capable of holding it against a determined attack. The moment the position was regained everyone who could work a sewing–machine or a needle was called upon to make sand–bags. Every sort of stuff was called into requisition for the purpose; ladies cut up silk and cotton dresses, men contributed spare pairs of trousers – which only required sewing up at the bottom of the legs and again at the top after being filled. With these the barricades were strengthened. Nevertheless, although the position was re–established, a general feeling of depression was felt. The Germans had not worked well, their resistance to the attack had been feeble, and none of their marines had joined in recovering the wall.
The feeling was deepened by events at the French Legation. Here Mr. Wagner, an officer of the customs–house, was killed and the French guards were driven back. Later, however, they recovered the position and returned to their barricades.
In the afternoon there was another misfortune. An Italian officer, Captain Paolina, proposed to attempt the capture of a gun in the northeast, facing the Fu, which had caused considerable annoyance. He suggested that the Japanese should proceed along the side of the canal, and then, working round a large block of houses, come down upon the gun from the north, while he, with a mixed party, should make his way between two of the blocks of houses against which the gun was directed. His own party of Italians was a small one, but they were supported by a few Italian marines and some Austrian and British volunteers. Among the latter were the students of the Consular College.
“It seems to be rather a hare–brained scheme,” Sandwich said. “I do not know whether this Italian officer has any particular means of finding out the lie of the land, but we certainly seem going at it in rather a headlong way, and without taking any precautions whatever. However, as we have not been called upon for much work, it is our turn for a fight. I suppose you are coming, Bateman?”
“Of course I am. I regard myself as a consular student at present, and am certainly game to take part in whatever is going on, though, as you say, it seems wiser to gather in the part of the Fu that remains in our hands, and go straight from that to the gun.”
They started along the side of the canal. When the Japanese had gone on ahead, the rest of the force rushed up the little lane at the corner of the Fu. Here they found themselves suddenly face to face with a barricade, eight feet high and loopholed. It was impossible to assault it. The Italians, who were ahead, made a mad rush for the hole leading into the wall to the Fu. They almost fought their way in, for it was but wide enough for one man to pass at a time. The officer was wounded, and two of the marines were killed. While the struggle was going on, the volunteers stood with their backs against a wall which was a little out of the general line of fire, and when the Italians were out of the way they made a dash for the door, one by one. The first four got across in safety, but the last was hit in the shoulder and leg. The Japanese, meanwhile, had forced their way some distance north, but after having one man killed and two wounded, finding themselves unsupported, they fell back.
The failure of the affair excited much indignation in the Legation. It had been attempted without any knowledge of the ground, without any pains being taken to ascertain the enemy?s position, and in a hasty and haphazard manner. Their success, however, gave great encouragement to the enemy.
The next day the Chinese gun again opened fire against the Fu, and under its cover a furious attack was made on the building. The Japanese, who had already suffered heavily, were forced back, fighting stoutly; and they must have been driven out of the building had it not been for a company of Christian Chinese whom their colonel had assiduously drilled, and who now fought as bravely as the Japanese themselves. With their aid the Japs recovered their lost ground by the end of the day.
The Chinese had shown particular animosity towards this company of converts, hurling curses against them and hitting them with stones. This was the result of an imperial proclamation which had been issued on the previous day, ordering that all missionaries and converts who did not repent of their former error should be slain.
The position at the American barricade was becoming more and more dangerous. The Chinese attack had increased in vigour, and they had built another barricade diagonally across the bastion, and almost touching that of the Americans. The consequence was that they could at any moment from their barricade pour into the bastion, and then make a rush over the American barrier. It was evident that if they were not driven out the wall must be abandoned. At daybreak, therefore, the Americans, strengthened by a reinforcement of British and Russians, gathered noiselessly behind their barricade, and, with the first gleam of light, dashed over it. They found most of the Chinese behind the new barricade asleep, and bayoneting them, drove the enemy also from the barrier on the other side of the wall. The Chinamen rallied, however, behind a barricade farther along the wall, and again opened fire, killing two of the American marines, and wounding Corporal Gregory of the British marines, and Colonel Myers, who had all along been in command. This was a serious loss to the defence.
By this time life in the British Legation had become smooth and regular, with the exception that a number of Chinese men and women, for whom no houseroom could be found, had to be accommodated in rude shelters in the square in front of the British envoy?s house. All were settled down, and every crevice through which a musket–ball could enter had been closed up. The chapel had been divided into compartments, and some fifty people were lodged in it. The library had been thrown open to the use of all within the Legation. The wells were fortunately full, and the health of the whole company was excellent.
Communication was opened with the Fu, as a sloping passage had been driven down into the canal and a strong barrier erected at the lower end, so that it was possible to pass along it without risk of suffering from the fire kept up from the north bridge.
From another quarter, however, the enemy were giving a great deal of trouble. Owing to the burning of the museum the space between our outposts and the Imperial wall was clear. The Chinese had now built behind that wall a strong platform and mounted several cannon upon it, only one of which, however, was of foreign make. The parapet of the wall, heightened and loopholed, served as a breastwork, and as they put an iron shutter before the larger gun, they could with perfect safety bombard the Legation below, only three hundred yards away. The besieged could make no reply to the fire. The wall itself could not be breached unless by heavy cannon, and had the Chinese placed upon the wall some of the modern cannon, of which they had abundance, and added to their number, they could easily have destroyed all the Legations. But, strange to say, they contented themselves with only firing an occasional shot, which did a certain amount of damage no doubt, but nothing serious.
Why the Boxers should not have utilized this commanding position is a mystery, and as inexplicable as their failure to use the gun on the opposite side of the market. This question was, too, a fertile cause of argument. In many respects the Chinese showed a good deal of intelligence in their attacks, and it was simply astounding that they should almost entirely neglect two points from which they could have done us more harm than from all others together. Some asserted that it must be due to officers in Ching?s force, men who, like himself, absolutely disapproved of the attack upon the Legations. But whatever the reason, all agreed that had the enemy utilized these two positions, the defence of the Legations must sooner or later have broken down.
“They are a curious mixture,” Sandwich said. “Sometimes they seem to fight very pluckily, and then when they have really got the best of it they seem to hesitate in an unaccountable manner. Twice, you see, it has really been open to them, if they had made a push, to take possession of the American and German Legations and they might also have captured the French; then all of a sudden their attack ceased without any apparent reason. Again, when they had captured the walls, which really placed us almost at their mercy, they let themselves be driven off by less than a hundred men. Considering the force that they have at their disposal, they ought to have repulsed the attack with ease. Then they did actually repel our attack on the other side of the market, but the moment they had done so they withdrew the gun and ceased to harass us. They have any number of guns at their disposal, and might have planted a score of them there, in which case they could have battered down the whole length of our wall on that side in a few hours. Now they have stuck those guns up there and play right down into the residency, yet they leave unworked the one formidable piece they have at that point.”
“It almost looks, Sandwich, as if they were divided into two parties, one using some sort of activity in order to take the place, the other thwarting them at every turn. That is the only explanation I can think of. It is a pity that one can?t get at some of the leaders. I don?t mean, of course, that Prince Tung could be bribed, but there must be some smaller princes and mandarins who would be amenable to a handsome offer, and who would go round to the side of Prince Ching, who we do know is dead against the Tung party. The best plan, though I don?t for a moment suggest that it is possible, would be to kidnap the Empress, and bring her in here in a sedan–chair.”
“That certainly would be a grand move, but, short of the power of making invisible the Empress, the chair, and its bearers, I am afraid there is no way of doing it.”
“No, I am afraid not. Certainly it could only be done by someone who knows the palace and its ways perfectly. We may take it for granted that all the approaches are guarded, and that it would be absolutely impossible for anyone who is not perfectly familiar with the place to make his way in. That is the difficulty. I suppose that if a man could once make an entrance and hide up, he would be able to get at the Empress. She must be alone sometimes, and if he could get at her at such a time and put a pistol to her head, he might be able to get her out. I don?t suppose she would be less amenable to persuasion of that sort than other women.”
Sandwich burst into a fit of laughter.
“You are a curious fellow, Bateman. I do believe you would be mad enough to try it if you could see the slightest possibility of success.”
Rex joined in the laugh.
“I am not sure that I wouldn?t. It would be well worth risking one?s life to save the occupants of these Legations, but I confess I do not see a possibility of carrying out the idea, at any rate without the assistance of someone who knows every in and out of the place, where the guards are placed, what are the habits of the Empress, how she occupies every minute of the day, and all that sort of thing. If a man had learnt all that, and had got such a guide, I should say that it would be possible. In case of failure, however, he would have to be prepared to put an end to himself, so as to avoid a very much more unpleasant form of death. But it is useless to think of it, as I have no idea whatever of the geography of the forbidden city, or the routine of life there. It is a pity, for it would really be worth trying.”
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