With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations
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“I should be glad to have a map of the town, sir, in order that I may see the exact position of the prince?s palace.”
“That is easy enough;” and Sir Claude opened a bureau and drew out a large map.
“That is Ching?s palace,” he said; “it is, as you see, by the side of the lake, about half–way between the Northern Cathedral and the bridge across the lake.”
Rex examined the map carefully.
“Thank you, sir!” he said when he had finished. “I shall be able to make my way there without difficulty.”
“I will give orders for the dress to be made; that and the letter to Ching shall be ready to–morrow afternoon, and I will request Mr. Cockburn to choose one of his most reliable men to accompany your man as an attendant. I need hardly say that it would be well not to mention to anyone what you are going to do. We have every reason to believe that in some way or other the Chinese get accurate information of all that passes here. Will you go out in broad daylight?”
“No, sir. I could scarcely hope to get out in that way. The Chinese are quietest toward morning, and by sallying out from the barricade near the Russian Consulate, I may be able to pass, as Mr. Squiers?s messenger did, through the Chien M?n. Once through that, I should be perfectly safe, and could go round and enter by the Si Chi M?n. After that I should be quite master of my own movements, and, making my way round behind the city, might enter the Imperial City by the How M?n, and, passing between the Northern Cathedral and wall, make my way to Prince Ching?s palace. The fact that I was going with a petition to him would be sufficient as an answer to any enquiries that might be made. It would be well that I should be furnished with a set of petitions in the usual form, asking for protection against the rough doings of some of his soldiers who had carried off several of my beasts and threatened me with personal violence.”
“A very good idea; that shall be ready for you with my letter.”
At two o?clock the next day Rex obtained the documents, together with a pass to let him through the barricade, and some clothes that had been made for him, appropriate to the character that he was going to assume. Going to Mr. Cockburn he found the native ready for him. He was a strong, powerful man, who carried a native shield and a long broadsword and dagger, and who would have attracted no notice as a retainer of a well–to–do farmer. Ah Lo had obtained similar weapons from a heap of those that had been taken from the enemy who had fallen in the attacks upon our barricades. Rex directed the Chinaman to join Ah Lo in the evening, and to keep by his side. He himself passed the evening as usual with his friends.
The next morning at four o?clock he put on his disguise. After the others had gone to sleep he had got up and shaved his head, with the exception of a top knot, and to this, before starting, he fastened a pigtail, which he curled up under a broad native hat.He placed his pistols out of sight under his girdle and put on a native sword. Then he made his way out to the spot where Ah Lo and the other man were lying. Both of them were awake, and at once rose and followed him. The Russian officer in charge of the barricade made some little demur at allowing him to go out, in spite of the pass, but when Rex made himself known to him he changed his attitude. The officer looked at him in surprise.
“You are well disguised, indeed, Mr. Bateman,” he said; “even knowing you as well as I do, I should not recognize you. You are going on a mission, I suppose?”
“Yes, I am going to see what the state of things is in the town.”
Keeping carefully in the shadow of such houses as were still standing, Rex, followed by the two men, made his way along noiselessly, and, reaching the Tung Pien M?n, passed out without interruption. They walked on till they were near the next gate, and when day had fairly broken, and the country people had begun to arrive, they entered with them and then moved quietly along the streets, looking into the shops. No one paid the slightest attention to them. There were many soldiers about, but few Boxers, who appeared to have fallen quite into the background since the regular troops took the siege in hand. It was supposed that they had been sent out of the city to be drilled and disciplined by regular officers, as these men were far more turbulent than the regular soldiers, whose conduct was orderly, and who in no way interfered with the populace. Their disappearance greatly diminished the danger of passage through the streets.
It took the little party two or three hours to make the circuit of the walls of the Imperial City. When they arrived at the gate near the Northern Cathedral Rex was glad to find that the French priests and their Christian converts were still holding out gallantly. Nevertheless he could not help feeling great anxiety for them. The position was certainly a strong one, but it seemed hardly possible that sufficient food could have been collected to enable them to support themselves during a prolonged siege. From this point he went round towards Prince Ching?s palace. Many soldiers were loitering about in front of the palace, and people of all sorts – officers, peasants, merchants, and others – were going in and out. Leaving his followers he entered the large hall. No questions were asked, and after waiting a short time he went up to one of the officials.
“I desire an audience with the prince,” he said.
“Well,” the man said, “you see how many there are before you. There is little chance that you will get an audience to–day.”
“This is an urgent matter,” Rex said, and slipped four taels into the man?s hand.
The official nodded significantly, and half an hour later showed him into the apartment where Ching was sitting with two or three secretaries.
Rex bowed to the ground.
“Your servant would request a private audience,” he said. “I have letters of importance to submit to your Excellency, and pray that you will receive me in private.”
After a moment?s hesitation the prince signed to the secretaries to withdraw.
“Your Highness,” Rex continued, as soon as they were alone, “I am not what I seem. I have come as a messenger from the British Minister, but as I could not make my way through the streets in my own costume, I have been obliged to adopt a disguise.”
“The disguise is good,” the prince said. “I should certainly have taken you for what you pretend to be.”
Rex handed to him the Minister?s letter. The prince read it carefully.
“I am anxious,” he said, “to bring about peace, and have kept my soldiers from joining in the attack on the Legations. Unfortunately I can do little more. The Empress listens to the advice of Prince Tung and Prince Tuan. Hitherto at times she has inclined towards my advice, but unfortunately her sympathies are the other way. At present, however, she begins to doubt whether she has been wise in incurring the enmity of all the European powers together. I had an interview with her last night, and pointed out that Japan alone had in the last war proved herself victorious over us. Since then our army has undoubtedly increased in strength, has obtained large quantities of modern weapons, and has gained in discipline. At the same time we are now opposed not by the Japanese alone, but by the Russians and all the European powers. We might, it is true, overcome the Legations, but of what real benefit would that be to us? Before three months had passed, an army of overwhelming strength would advance against Pekin, and no force that we could raise would have any chance of victory against it. What would be the consequence? We should have to submit, as we have done in previous wars, to great losses of territory, to the payment of a vast sum of money, and possibly even the dynasty would be endangered.
“The Empress listened to my arguments, but said that we had gone too far now to draw back. However, she said that she would turn the matter over in her mind. I have seen a considerable change in her demeanour in the last four or five days. Up to that time she would not even listen to me, and although she has always shown great friendship for me, I have expected every day to be relieved from all my functions. But the failure of the attempts of her troops to capture the Legations, as she had been assured by her advisers they would do, have preyed upon her. She is restless and irritable, and I believe she begins to doubt.
“The British Minister begs me to try to intervene again, and bring about a truce, until, at any rate, the course of events at Tientsin is seen. At present there is hard fighting going on round that place. It is difficult even for us to know what is passing, for naturally your commanders get the best of matters. It is certain, however, that we are not gaining ground, and that in a very short time many troops will come up from the ships. I am to see the Empress again this evening, and will use all my efforts to get her to order that hostilities shall cease for the present. I can point out that she cannot lose by so doing; the provisions must be running short, and your people, if they find that no relief can come to them, will be forced to surrender without further fighting. I shall urge upon her that these continued repulses of their attacks can but dishearten her troops, and that in all respects she will benefit by a cessation of the fighting. I think that she is more and more coming to doubt whether she has acted wisely in allowing Prince Tung and the others of that party to influence her. A week ago I had lost all influence over her; now, although I am by no means restored to favour, she listens to me with more patience.
“Well, will you tell your Minister that I do not like to write to him, because you may be detected and seized on your way back, but that I am still friendly to you all, and will do my best this evening to bring about the cessation of hostilities. Say that although I may fail this time I feel sure that the attacks will cease in the course of a day or two, for I know that there is considerable discontent amongst the troops at the loss that they are suffering and their failure to make headway. They are also greatly dissatisfied with their leaders, and say that if they were all ordered to attack at once, instead of merely firing from a distance, they would certainly succeed. Will you say to the British Minister that I most cordially reciprocate his assurance of good–will, and trust that in the future I may again have the pleasure of meeting him personally. If I am successful this evening I shall take means to inform him that all serious attacks will cease. I do not say that there may be no more firing, for the troops are very much out of hand, and we cannot leave the Boxers out of account. There may, therefore, be desultory firing, but no real attack, unless indeed an army is advancing against us, in which case I fear there will be a renewal of hard fighting, in the first place because the troops will be worked up to a state of fury, and in the second because Prince Tung and the others will desire above all things to get the occupants of the Legations into their power to use them as hostages for obtaining good terms for themselves.”
“I am indeed greatly obliged to your Highness,” said Rex. “May I ask if you will place your signature to this petition of mine that my farm is to be respected by all bodies of troops or Boxers? that will secure my passage out of the town if I should be interrogated.”
“A wise precaution,” the prince said, as he attached his signature to the paper. “You are a brave young man; what is your name?”
“My name is Bateman,” Rex replied. “I am not a resident of Pekin, and am only here because I brought two young ladies, relations of mine, from Chafui, where they were in danger of being slain, their father and mother and the other members of the missionary settlement having been already murdered.”
A flash of amusement passed over the usually impassive face of the prince.
“I heard,” he said, “that the governor?s yamen was burned, and the report of the affair stated that two female captives, who were to have been executed on the following day, perished. It is possible that you had a hand in that.”
“I had a little to do with it, your Highness, and I can assure you that the two captives did not perish there.”
“I will ask no questions,” the prince said; “it is clear that you are a brave young man, and I trust that whatever happens here you will escape.”
Rex now took his leave. The people in the ante–room looked at him with some curiosity and not without hostility because of the time that his interview had lasted. He passed out quietly, however, without looking to right or left, and made his way towards the cathedral, where he was joined by his followers. He had a vague hope that he might be able to communicate with those besieged in the cathedral and learn the state of their supplies, but he found that the investment of the place was complete. The cathedral and the adjoining building, however, were very strong, and he felt sure that they could repel every attack, and that if they yielded it must be to famine.
Making his way through the town he was more than once stopped and questioned by bodies of soldiers; but his story, supported as it was by Prince Ching?s signature to his petition, at once removed all suspicion, and he sallied out through the Si Chi M?n without hindrance. He remained in the fields until after dark, then entered by the Tung Pien M?n, and made his way along the foot of the wall in the Chinese city till he reached the end of Legation Street. Shots were being exchanged with such frequency that he did not dare to go farther, so he and his followers lay down in the ruin of the American Methodist building. Towards morning, the firing having ceased, they crawled forward to within fifty yards of the barrier, then, standing up, ran forward, Rex shouting: “Don?t fire, I am an Englishman.”
“Who are you?” asked the sergeant at the post.
“My name is Bateman,” said Rex, “and I have been to the town on a mission from the British Minister.”
“Well, you had better climb over, whoever you are,” the sergeant said. “We can question you when you get inside, but you will be shot in less than no time if you stop there.”
As he spoke a rifle cracked out and the ball struck a stone within an inch or two of Rex?s head. He and his followers scrambled over the barricade with alacrity, and, having satisfied the guard of their identity, passed on through the Russian Legation to the British head–quarters. He went straight to the room occupied by the students. Half of his comrades were away on guard, but Sandwich was in.
“So you are back again, Bateman!” Sandwich exclaimed. “You have as many lives as a cat.”
“Well, I have run no risks this time. I have scarce had a question asked me since I left. There is really no reason whatever why natives from here shouldn?t go regularly into the city, providing they can get rid of whatever it is that shows that they are Christians.”
“And you mean to say that you really had an interview with Prince Ching?”
“Yes, I have really done so, and I found him a very civil old Chinaman, and very well disposed towards us. He is going to try to bring about an armistice.”
As soon as Rex had changed his clothes he went to the Minister?s and related to him the interview he had had with Prince Ching.
“I am greatly obliged to you, Mr, Bateman. What you tell me confirms the view that we have all along held, that Ching and some of the other Chinese officials are altogether opposed to the proceedings of Prince Tung. I can only hope that his influence will this time prevail, and that the Chinese will grant an armistice. I don?t suppose that such an agreement will be well kept, but at least we shall have an easier time of it. It is probable that stirring events are going on at Tientsin. We know that the Taku Forts have been taken, and the Chinese may be willing to hold their hands until they see the result. They must know that provisions here will run short soon, and as they lose heavily in every fight it would be easier for them to wait and let famine do its work.”
Two hours later a bugle was blown and a man came in with a letter from Prince Ching saying that he heard with gratification that the Foreign Ministers were all well, and that he now requested them to take their families and the members of their staff and leave the Legations in detachments. Officers would be waiting to give them strict protection, and temporary accommodation would be found for them in the Tsung–li–yamen pending future arrangements for their return home, in order that friendly relations might be preserved.
The Ministers were all agreed that although this invitation could certainly not be accepted, it was a proof that the Chinese considered it impossible to capture the Legations, and for a time at least no further serious attacks would be made. Directly the meeting of the Ministers was over and their decision known, Rex went to see Sir Claude Macdonald.
“I have come to ask you for permission to make my way out. I am convinced from what Ching has said that there will be no more very serious fighting until perhaps a relief force moves forward, when they may make a last desperate attempt to capture the place. My father and mother are at Tientsin, where I am anxious to rejoin them. I have no fear whatever of being unable to get down, and my report of the situation here may have much influence upon the starting of the relief force. It is most essential that this should not be made in inadequate force. It is certain that the advance would be met with the whole strength of the Chinese army, which is not contemptible, and the failure of another attempt would be most disastrous for you here.”
“Yes, that is most important,” the Minister said, “and as we could defend ourselves here for some little time yet it is better that the column should not advance until it is strong enough to overcome all opposition. After all you have already done I have no doubt that you will be able to get into Tientsin without difficulty. When do you propose to start?”
“As soon as it is dark, sir. I shall make my way out by the Tung Pien gate, follow the canal for some distance, and then strike for the river. I shall walk all night, lie up during the next day, and get near Tientsin by the following morning. I shall then see my best way to enter.”
“You will hardly do it in two nights? walking.”
“My man and I are both good walkers, sir. It would be about five–and–forty miles each night, but I think that we can do that; I am most anxious to get home.”
After leaving the Minister, Rex went to the girls.
“I am going away again,” he said. “I can leave you now without anxiety, for I am convinced that the Chinese can never take the place. I shall come up with the next relief column.”
“We are very sorry that you are going, Rex, but really you do such rash things here that I think you will be safer away. If you remain we shall have you volunteering next to carry the Empress off.”
“There was no rashness in my going into the city, Jenny. I was dressed just like everyone else and attracted no attention whatever. There is little danger in going down to Tientsin, though there may be some risk perhaps in getting into the town. At any rate I can leave you here with confidence. If I thought that there was any doubt about it I should take you both down with me now; but we should be at least five days instead of two, and the risk would therefore be much greater, and if the place should be besieged I might find it quite impossible to get you in.”
“We would much rather stay here; we are very busy and are happy to be of use. Everyone is very kind to us, and we get on much better now than before we came to the hospital, for we have no time to think or grieve over the past. So you are going to–night?”
“Yes, we shall start directly the coast is clear, and we shall go out as we came in. Of course if there is heavy firing we must wait.”
Rex and Ah Lo succeeded in slipping out of Pekin without attracting attention, and set out in the direction of Tientsin with all possible speed. They had not gone far, however, before they were compelled to hide from a band of Boxers. This happened several times within a very short period, and Rex at last decided that it would be safer for both if they were to proceed by different routes. At first Ah Lo would not consent to such a course, but in the end Rex?s arguments prevailed, and, having arranged to meet at a point near Tientsin, they shook hands and separated.
Some hours later Rex was lying among some bushes near a river, where he had thrown himself down to rest, when suddenly the stillness was broken by a deep roar. Rex started and a cold shudder ran through him. He was not acquainted with the roar of a tiger, but had no doubt whatever what it was. While they were chatting together one day his father had told him that tigers were by no means uncommon, especially in the jungle country near rivers, and that although they occasionally carried off cattle it was seldom that they meddled with the natives. He felt no doubt, however, that the animal he had heard was a tiger. It had probably been disturbed by the firing and the movements of numbers of armed men, and the thought that it was probably unusually hungry came across his mind.
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