With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations
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He listened eagerly, and when presently he heard a stealthy footfall, he drew his pistol from his belt and threw himself down, for he remembered having heard that tigers prefer living quarry to carrion. He had not lain thus long before he heard the animal breathing heavily. It came closer and closer; he could hear it snuffing him from head to foot. Then it placed its paw upon him. The weight was great, but Rex, who was lying on his face, still kept perfectly quiet. He held his breath for as long as possible and then took another breath, as gently and as silently as he could. Then he felt the animal remove its paw, and begin to walk round and round him. He remembered now that the river was but ten yards away, and that if he could but get a start he might possibly escape. But while he was considering the advisability of making a dash for it the tiger returned and seized him by the shoulder. Fortunately Rex had on a thick cloak, and though the pain was considerable, the animal was apparently only endeavouring to find out whether he were dead. The strain, however, was too great to be borne long. He felt that at any moment the animal might bite him in earnest, and that any movement on his part would certainly cause it to do so. Quietly, and gradually, he moved his arm upwards. The tiger gave an angry growl as he did so, and he felt the pressure of its teeth increasing.
There was no time for hesitation now. He raised his arm gradually to the level of the tiger?s eyes and fired. With a sudden roar, the tiger leapt back. Rex was on his feet in an instant, and, making a dash for the river, he threw himself in. A moment later the tiger was on the bank. It fell in close to him and swam about confusedly until, at last, it regained the bank, and there it stood roaring. It was evident to Rex that he had partially or wholly blinded it. He struck out down stream, but a few strokes showed him that he was so completely shaken by the ordeal he had gone through that he could not long support himself.
At this moment he saw that there was a junk lying ahead of him. A number of Chinamen on board were shouting and gesticulating, and as he watched them they began to fire in the direction of the tiger?s roars. Rex swam round to the other side of the junk, unseen by the excited natives; then, feeling too exhausted to go farther, he climbed up by means of the oars, which had been left in position by the rowers, and, diving down an open hatchway, threw himself on something hard below. As he lay there he could hear the tiger roar terribly, but as the sound decreased he knew that the animal was moving away.
The firing presently ceased, but the talking of the Chinese continued, and Rex guessed that they were discussing who had fired the shot. He heard a boat row ashore, but after a time this returned, having found no signs of the tiger or its supposed victim. When they returned, the din gradually subsided and all became quiet again. By this time Rex had recovered; his shoulder was almost powerless, but he managed to crawl back to the hatchway, and, raising himself, he looked out.
The Chinamen were sitting about on the deck, some cooking and others smoking their little pipes.He thought it probable that after the excitement of the night they would remain up till morning, and in that case his risk of discovery was great. Doubtless he might hide himself in the cargo until that was discharged, but this might not be for some days, and he was anxious in the extreme to reach Tientsin as soon as possible. He therefore resolved to escape at once. He guessed that, with the exception of those who had gone ashore in the boat, the men would not have reloaded their firearms, and that, once ashore, he would be able to distance them. Several Chinamen were sitting between the hatch and the bulwark, but, climbing cautiously on deck, he reached the side of the vessel in a couple of strides and sprang overboard before anyone noticed him. There was a lull of surprise among the Chinese, and then a confused jabbering, followed by several musket shots. But Rex had dived, and having swum under water as long as he could hold his breath, he felt sure, when he came up, that he could no longer be distinctly seen in the darkness.
Then he heard some of the men try to move the boat again, and instead of making direct for the shore, he swam along parallel to it, knowing that the boat would go a great deal faster than he could swim. He heard the shouts of the men as they landed, and then, turning, swam for the other side. When he reached the bank he crawled among the bushes and lay down. For some time he remained without moving, but suddenly he sprang to his feet; the tiger had begun to howl again, and it was but a short distance from him. He knew that even if the brute?s sight was entirely destroyed its scent would bring it towards him, and having much more fear of the tiger than of the men, he again jumped into the river. He could hear the shouts of the Chinese, and, judged by their number, that they had been joined by many of their companions on the junk. He remained in the water till morning dawned, when a savage yell told him that he had been discovered by the Chinese on the other side.
The roar of the tiger had ceased, but he could hear its low moanings not far off. Nevertheless he felt that if he were to escape he must risk another encounter with the animal. He therefore made for the shore again, and climbed up on the bank. Looking back as he did so, he saw that the Chinese were leaping into their boat; then, without further delay he dashed in among the trees. When he reached the other side of the jungle he saw to his dismay a large number of Chinese soldiers in a village some three hundred yards away. He crept back again, therefore, among the bushes, and keeping just inside them moved cautiously along, taking the utmost pains not to show any signs of his presence. After proceeding a hundred yards or so in this way he approached the edge and looked out. A number of Chinese were just issuing from the bush, and one of them at once ran across towards the village. Rex moved forward again, this time leaving the edge and plunging into the heart of the jungle.
The Chinese could not, he knew, have recognized him as a white man, but his extraordinary conduct in hiding in the junk, and the unusual method he adopted of leaving it, would have shown them that at any rate he was not one of themselves, and would perhaps have suggested to them that he was going down with a message from Pekin.
He was presently aware, by the loud shouting, that at least some of the soldiers had joined in the pursuit. The strip of jungle was of no great width, and as he could not therefore hope to escape by keeping to it, he made his way back towards the river. When he made the bank again he saw, to his satisfaction, that the boat in which his pursuers had crossed was lying only some fifty yards away, with but one Chinaman sitting in it. This man, he decided, must be silenced at any cost, for he would give the alarm the moment he was in the water. He therefore approached him as quietly as possible, keeping among the bushes until he was opposite to the boat.
The Chinaman was evidently listening, for he was standing up in the boat, his attention probably attracted by the slight rustle Rex had made in coming along. Rex gathered himself together and sprang suddenly into the boat, grasping the Chinaman by the throat and rolling with him upon the floorboards. He could have shot him easily enough, but he knew that the sound would draw all his pursuers to the spot, and so defeat his purpose. The Chinaman was a powerful man, but Rex had taken such a grip of his throat that he was unable to shake it off. The desperate conflict continued for a minute or two. Then the Chinaman?s struggles grew more feeble, his colour became almost black, his little eyes began to stare; indeed he seemed at the point of death. Rex was reluctant to kill the man, so he bound his arms tightly to his sides with a rope which he found in the boat, and stuffed his mouth was a piece of cloth which he cut from the man?s own coat. Then, leaving him lying senseless in the bottom, he seized one of the oars.
As the channel was shallow, he was able to punt across, and as he did so he noted with satisfaction that the junk was so far away that those on board would take him for a native. On reaching the other side he jumped ashore, pushed the boat out into the stream with all his strength, and then, turning, made off as fast as he could go. After covering some two miles he reached the edge of the jungle. Here he halted, for he felt that he could not continue his journey by day without danger of discovery. He threw himself down on the ground. The events of the last few hours had completely exhausted him, and he now discovered that he had lost his bag of provisions; probably he had left them where the tiger had attacked him. This was a great misfortune, for he had still, he calculated, at least thirty miles to pass before he reached Tientsin, and he might be kept some time outside that place before he could enter it. He waited until late in the afternoon, and then he felt that he must have some food. He therefore started again on his journey, and at last, after hesitating several times, determined to risk everything. He recharged his revolvers, and, waiting till night had quite fallen, made his way into the nearest village.
He congratulated himself more than ever that he was able to speak Chinese, and he knew that the dialect differed so much in various parts of the country that although the peasants might see that he was not a native of their district, they would not guess that he was other than a Chinaman. He therefore entered a house where a light was burning, and said: “I am sorely in need of feed. Will you sell me some?”
The occupants of the cottage were an old man and an old woman. At his words they both looked up in some surprise.
“Where do you come from?” the woman asked.
“I come from the north,” he said, “and am the bearer of a message to our general at Tientsin. I have travelled a long way and am hungry.”
“Are you a Boxer?” the old man asked.
“No,” he replied. “My letter is from the Empress.”
“Well, well,” the old man said, “it makes no difference to us. Did you see any Boxers on this side of the river as you came along?”
“No,” said Rex, “they were on the other side.”
The old man heaved a sigh of relief.
“They are terrible people,” he said, “and though they fight against the white devils they plunder and kill us poor villagers, who have nothing to do with the affair.”
“They act badly,” Rex said; “and it is because I know that they kill before questioning that I am travelling on this side of the river.”
“You do well,” the peasant said. “It is true that they have no mercy. We have now in the village several who have barely escaped with their lives from them by swimming across the river. They have told us terrible tales of their doings. But you are hungry; my wife will cook you some rice.”
“Do you mind shutting the door?” Rex asked. “There might be someone in the village who, wishing to curry favour with the Boxers, might go and bring some of them over if he saw a stranger here.”
“I will do so,” the old man said, suiting the action to the word; “for although I think that there is none in the village who would do so treacherous an act, yet it is as well to take precautions.”
The old woman set some rice to boil over a small fire, while the old man chatted with Rex. In twenty minutes the rice was ready, and, sitting down, he made a hearty meal, congratulating himself that during his journey with the girls he had learned to eat with chopsticks.
He had just finished when the door opened and a man wearing the badge of the Boxers entered the room.
“Bring out what food you have!” the fellow said roughly; “all of it. There are many of us in the village; it is of no use making resistance. We want to eat ourselves and to carry all there is here back to our comrades. Who is this? a son of yours?”
“No,” the old man said, “he is a stranger, and bears a message from the Empress for your general at Tientsin.”
“Let me see it!” the man demanded. “It is strange that you should come round this way, instead of going straight.”
“My message is to the general,” Rex said, “and I give it to no one else.”
“But how are we to know that your story is true?” the Boxer said. “This is not the way that a messenger from the Empress would come, and if she sent one it would not be by a fellow like you. Empresses do not entrust their messages to peasants. I believe you are a spy from the white devils at Pekin.”
“I can?t help what you believe,” Rex said quietly, “nor do I mean to quarrel with you. I will therefore say to you, leave me alone and I will leave you alone.”
“Message or no message,” the Boxer said, “I will soon satisfy myself.” And he drew his sword.
Rex listened a moment through the open door. He could hear a great din and commotion; muskets were being discharged, and flames were bursting out from among the cottages. Feeling, therefore, that the sound of a pistol would hardly attract attention, he raised his weapon as the Boxer rushed at him, and shot the man through the head.
The old peasant wrung his hands.
“They will kill us all!” he cried; “they will show us no mercy!”
“Quick! Help me to carry the body out at the back door, and to lay it down by the wall. The body will not be noticed there. Then I advise you and your wife to fly at once and hide in the jungle a few hundred yards away. There is no fear of their finding you, and in the morning you can come out again, if, as is most likely, they have gone.”
The old man seized the dead Boxer by the legs, while Rex took him by the head, and together they removed him from the house. Then the old couple hurried away, after Rex had thrust some money into the man?s hand.
“That will go far to build up your cottage again,” he said; “but it is hardly likely that they will burn it when they find it empty.”
So saying he turned away and continued his journey. He had gone but a couple of miles when he came suddenly upon a group of peasants, who were anxiously watching a light in the sky.
“Who are you?” they shouted as they seized him.
“I am a stranger in these parts; I am on my way down from Pekin,” he said; “but I have come to warn you that the Boxers are near at hand.”
“That is a pretty tale,” one of them said derisively. “There is no doubt that you are a spy of the Boxers come on in advance to know whether our village is worth plundering. Besides, we know that the Boxers have not yet crossed the river.”
“I can assure you that they have. That light you see there comes from the village three miles away. They have plundered it and set it on fire.”
“A nice story!” the spokesman of the party said. “How then did you get away to give us word if you were not sent forward as a spy?”
“I was staying there overnight,” he said, “and while I was eating my supper the village was attacked, and I fled.”
“That will not do, my fine fellow. There is no doubt that you are a Boxer spy, and at least one of the cursed band shall die. Haul him along, fellows!”
The men dragged Rex to the village, which was but a hundred yards away. There he was tied to a post while the villagers debated what death he should die. It was not pleasant to Rex to hear the details of his execution discussed, each one more horrible than another. They finally decided to burn him alive, and were bringing the faggots out of their houses for the purpose, when a sound of shouting and the clashing of weapons was borne towards them on the quiet night air.
“Listen!” he shouted, “the Boxers are coming.”
Everyone stood for a moment as still as a statue. Then a wild cry arose of “The Boxers! the Boxers!” and in an instant all Rex?s persecutors had fled, each to snatch some prized valuable in his house, and to fly before the Boxers arrived. As soon as they had left him, Rex struggled to free himself from his bonds. Fortunately the cords had not been tightly fastened, and after a prolonged and desperate effort he freed one hand; the rest was comparatively easy, and just as the Boxers were entering the village he tore himself free. He ran at the top of his speed till he felt that he was safe, and then he threw himself down exhausted.
“I have had a hard day of it indeed,” he said; “once mauled by a tiger, and three times nearly taken by the Boxers. If I get through this safely, I am not likely to leave Tientsin again until I come up with the relieving army. I have had more narrow escapes to–day than I have had in all my life, and I have no wish for a repetition of them. I am not sure if I do not prefer a tiger to these fanatical Boxers.”
After lying for fully half an hour, he got up and continued his way towards Tientsin. The rest of the journey was uneventful. At the appointed spot he met Ah Lo, who had managed to get down without adventure. After mutual congratulations, they made a hearty meal off some provisions which Ah Lo had been fortunate enough to get at the house of an old friend, Rex the while recounting his experiences. When they had finished, they cautiously approached the town.
Working down to the east, they saw that heavy firing was going on from a large building which had been the Chinese military college, and in other parts of the town. The military college showed signs of having been heavily cannonaded.
“It is evident,” said Rex, “that our fellows have taken that place, and that the Chinese are attacking it. We must wait till night, and then try and make our way in. I hope that the place is held by British troops, for if it is occupied by troops who don?t understand English, we are likely to be shot as we approach it.”
Accordingly they lay down at the edge of a patch of high corn.
“At present,” said Rex, “our men are taking the offensive; the firing on the other side of the river is on the outside of the settlement. Admiral Seymour?s force can?t have retired beyond Tientsin; they must be holding the place, for certainly the local Europeans would not have been strong enough to make a sortie, or to have captured that Chinese college. It is either that or else troops must have come up from Taku.”
The truth was that fifteen hundred Russians had arrived after Admiral Seymour?s force had started. It was fortunate indeed that they had not arrived in time to join it, for if they had, Tientsin could not have made a successful resistance.
All day the firing went on. Where they lay they could see that not only Boxers, but regular Chinese troops, were taking part in the attack. Several times the enemy made rushes almost up to the college, but each time they quailed before the heavy fire and turned back. At nightfall the fighting ceased, and Rex and his companion left their hiding–place and made their way round to the river below the military college, on which side no attack had been made. Groups of men were sitting about talking together, but by exercising great caution they succeeded in avoiding these, and at last approached the college. When they got nearer, Rex shouted: “I am an Englishman with messages from Pekin; don?t fire!”
“All right, mate!” came back in a hearty voice. “But you must just stop where you are until I call an officer.”
A minute later, a voice shouted: “How many are there of you?”
“Only myself and one servant.”
“All right! come on. As an Englishman you must be a friend.”
A couple of minutes later Rex and Ah Lo entered the college. An officer with two men and a lantern met them.
“You may be an Englishman,” the officer said, “but you look very unlike one.”
“If I hadn?t disguised myself I should not have got down here,” Rex said with a laugh. “My name is Bateman. I am the son of a merchant here. I went up with Admiral Seymour?s expedition, but left them when they came to a stand–still, and made my way into Pekin, where I have some relations.”
“Are they holding out all right?” the officer asked eagerly. “No news has come down for the past ten days. Isn?t Seymour there?”
“No. I am sorry to say he is not. Hasn?t he got back here?”
“No. We have not heard of him since he started.”
“That is bad news indeed. He was getting very short of provisions when I left him. We heard firing as we came down to–day, some ten miles out. I know that there is a big Chinese arsenal out there. I only hope he has taken that and is defending himself.”
“And Pekin is safe still?”
“Yes. We have been fighting hard for the past three weeks, and the garrison can hold out for some time longer; but the Chinese are gradually gaining ground. The French Legation is nearly destroyed, so is the American, and the Russian is a good deal damaged. I hope, however, that fighting has stopped for the present. If it goes on again all will have to take to the British settlement. Now, how can I get across?”
“Well, you can?t get to the bridge now. Your only plan is to take a native boat – several of them are lying on the shore – and row across. We are going to blow up this place to–night, and level it to the ground; the men are all at work mining it. We only took it because it commands more or less all the streets running from the water. When we have levelled it we shall probably return again to the other side. Of course before going we shall also burn down all the Chinese houses on this side of the river.”
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