With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations
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“That seems good enough,” the middy said; “but what on earth have you got the lantern for? Do you mean to march out with it to show the way?”
“Not exactly,” Rex laughed. He then explained their plan to the middy.
“First–rate, a jolly good idea!” said his friend. “The guns are somewhere along those ruins over there; they fire every three or four minutes. Just at present, as far as I can make out, they are pounding the French settlement. I should think the line would be somewhere about that house fifty yards behind.”
“I will go and stand there,” Rex said, “and watch for the next shot. It is most important to get the lanterns in the exact line, because if we once got among those houses in the dark we might search for half an hour before we found the position, and likely enough might fall over some of the sleeping Boxers.”
“They are not Boxers,” the midshipman said, “they are regular troops. Those guns are Krupps, and the Boxers have no guns of that sort. I will go back with you. Two eyes are better than one; there is only the flash to guide us, for they are using smokeless powder.”
They went back to the point that he had suggested, and stood looking earnestly till they saw the flash. Both agreed that they were five or six yards too much to the left. They accordingly moved a little in that direction. Five minutes after they saw another flash.
“This is just about right,” Rex said; “there is a window just overhead. The house looks to me as if it were empty; at any rate I will go in and see.”
It turned out to be as he thought.
“All right! I will leave the lantern in the house and light it as we come along, which will be about twelve o?clock. I shall be glad if you will keep your eye upon both lights and see that they burn steadily. Probably they will not require attention, but at the same time, as the success of the job depends upon both keeping alight, it is as well to run no risks. There is, perhaps, more fear of the one on the barricade coming to grief than of this. One of your sailors might topple it over.”
“You needn?t be afraid of that. I will put a man to sit by the side of it, or rather to sit down behind it in shelter, for the bullets whistle pretty close over that point sometimes.”
“It would be a very good plan,” Rex said, “if you would get him to put his hat in front of it and take it away again about every quarter of a minute, so as to make the light twinkle. You see there are a good many lights in the houses at night, and at a distance we might easily make a mistake; but if this one were to be kept flashing we could hardly go wrong.”
“A good idea again, Bateman! I shall see that that is done. Is there anything else?”
“Well, I think that after we have been gone five minutes it would be an advantage if you would make your men fire half a dozen shots. Those snipers would be sure to answer at once, and we should then get some idea of their situation and probably be able to avoid them.”
“That shall be done,” said the middy.“The danger will, of course, be in spiking the guns.”
“That is so, but we shall all be in disguise, so that if we stumble over any of them in the dark we shall only be taken for some of their own fellows. We shall each carry hammers and spikes, and felt wads an inch thick, so that when we find the guns we shall be able to spike them without making any noise.”
“Do you know the mechanism of those Krupp guns?”
“Well, then, you would only be going out on a fool?s errand. You would not be able to spike them, and if you did, they would have no difficulty in cutting the spike off by taking the breech–block out. Your best plan would be to get the breech–blocks out and carry them away. They would probably be too heavy to carry far, but if you were to get them out and take them a short distance away, you might hide them among the ruins and cover them over with rubbish. That would effectually put them out of action until we go out and capture the place. Look here! have you got a pocket–book with you?”
“Well, then, I can show you roughly the action of the gun and how to open the breech and get the block out. When you grasp that you will find no difficulty in doing it, if you coach the fellows who are going with you how it is done. You see the action would be quite noiseless, and though it would take you a good bit longer than spiking, that would not be very important if you find all the fellows asleep.”
“Thank you! I am very much obliged to you. It would have been a horrible sell to find, when we got there, that after all we could do nothing.”
They went together to the barricade and sat down in as comfortable a spot as they could find. Then the midshipman drew a plan of the breech action and explained minutely to Rex how it worked and how he should proceed to get out the wedge and stopper. In the evening, when the others came off duty, Rex brought them home, and, taking them up into his room, explained to them what was to be done. He knew that it was useless to attempt to get Ah Lo to understand it, but he would only have to put his hand on the part to be operated upon, and get Ah Lo to apply his strength to it.
“Even if we can?t get out the breech–block, or find it too heavy to carry away, it would be sufficient, I should say, to take out the wedge and stopper, and carry them off, for I doubt whether they would be able to replace these parts, and at any rate they could only do so after several days? delay, which would be a good deal gained.”
At a quarter to twelve Rex and Ah Lo set out, and on arriving at the barricade found their two companions already there. The lanterns were lighted, and they at once set out. They advanced until they judged that they were near the line of snipers, and then lay down. They had scarcely done so when the defenders of the barrier opened fire, and directly afterwards, as Rex had expected, the Chinese ahead replied. The shots were all pretty close together, which seemed to show that the Chinese there were in a group. Rex and his companions immediately set off again, and, after proceeding about a hundred yards to the right, again went forward. All had muffled their shoes with strips of blanket before starting, and, treading very cautiously to avoid stumbling against stones or other obstacles, they went quietly forward, holding their pistols in readiness for action, and stooping low.
They met with no interruption. The party on the left were still firing, and they found no one ahead of them. Gradually they moved towards the left until the Chinese snipers were behind them and they had the two lanterns in line. They went on faster now till they knew that they must be near the houses, for the night was so dark that they could not even see the outline. Looking frequently back to be sure that they were keeping the exact line, they proceeded steadily and at last came upon a wall, evidently the remains of a house. From this point they moved forward foot by foot until they felt that they were far enough among the ruins; then they scattered a little until, to their delight, they came upon the guns. Listening intently they could hear the sound of heavy breathing and snoring a short distance ahead, and judged that the Chinese must be lying but fifteen yards away. They drew together round one of the guns and felt the breech.
“Here is the handle of the lever,” Rex whispered.
Opening the breech they took out the wedge and stopper, and then moved to the other gun and completed the operation. They had finished it and were moving off when one of them stumbled and fell. A Chinaman, startled by the sound, exclaimed: “Who is there; what are you doing?” Making no reply, however, they hurried on, and making two or three turns among the ruins were soon in the open again.
“Keep along still farther to the left,” Rex said, as there was a sudden shout behind. “Evidently the wakeful Chinaman has got up to investigate the cause of the disturbance, and has discovered that the guns have been tampered with.”
As he spoke a chorus of yells came from the direction of the guns.
“Look here!” Rex said, “here is a pile of earth where a wall has fallen. Let?s shove these things in here and cover them up; they are precious heavy, and we can?t do any fighting until we have got rid of them.”
The suggestion was no sooner made than it was carried out. Kneeling down they rapidly scraped a hole in the debris, and carefully hid the portions of the guns which they had carried off. As they did so they could hear a rush of shouting men behind them.
“We had better follow them,” Rex said. “No doubt they will scatter along the line, and we shall then have a good chance of getting through.” Accordingly they retraced their steps and joined their pursuers. The mob of Chinamen scattered as they advanced, and halted to make enquiries when they reached the sniping line. As the men here declared that no one had passed them, the great bulk went on to the right or left. Rex whispered to Ah Lo, who exclaimed: “They may have run on; we will see if we can?t overtake them!” and with his companions passed on at a run.
It was straight sailing now; the guiding lantern was in front of them, and at the top of their speed they ran down towards it. They were challenged as they approached the barricade, for the Chinese had opened a heavy random fire.
“All right!” Rex shouted, “don?t fire, whatever you do.”
A minute later he and his companions climbed the barricade.
“Well, have you succeeded?” the midshipman asked.
“Yes, thanks to your advice, we have disabled the guns. We have not brought the pieces with us, but we have buried them in the ruins where they are certainly not likely to be discovered.”
“No, we have not had to draw a trigger.”
“Well done! I heard a terrible din right out in that direction, and feared that you had been captured.”
“No, we had done the business before they got the alarm, and were able to make off without being seen. Then we joined them and rushed in pursuit of ourselves; but when they scattered in all directions we kept straight on, shouting that we should overtake the fugitives.”
“Well, you have done a first–rate job, and as a result we shall have a comparatively quiet time to–morrow, for their shot generally struck near us. Shall I report the affair?”
“No,” Rex said. “We have agreed that we will say nothing about it. We might get a blowing–up for acting without orders. We don?t want praise, and are well satisfied to have silenced those troublesome guns.”
They went quietly back to their homes, and next day had the pleasure of hearing remarks of surprise and satisfaction at the silence of the two guns that had been so troublesome.
That morning a relief force, under the command of Lieutenant–Colonel Shirinsky, sallied out to the assistance of Admiral Seymour, and the day passed in comparative quietness at Tientsin, the time being employed by the troops and inhabitants in strengthening the barricades. The Chinese, who were of course aware of the large reinforcements that had arrived on the previous day, and were probably anticipating an attack, remained inactive. Only a few shots were fired into the settlements during the day.
Having nothing else to do Rex wandered all over the settlements, and was surprised to see the enormous damage that had been effected by the Chinese guns. The French settlement had been almost entirely destroyed by fire and shot, the damage greatly exceeding that which had been inflicted on the British settlement. Many of the houses had suffered terribly. The municipal buildings had been struck many times, but, being solidly built, had suffered only from the heavier missiles. Houses facing the river were all riddled with musket balls, and many had been badly knocked about by the Chinese guns on the opposite side. The loss of life, however, had been particularly small, and the inhabitants, feeling that the worst was over, congratulated themselves that it had not been more serious.
Rex learned that the heaviest fighting had taken place round the railway–station. This point was guarded jointly by a force of Japanese, French, and British, the Japanese and French being stationed on the platform and in the station buildings, while the British, with a Maxim, held the engine–house. The fighting lasted day and night for several days in succession, the enemy making the engine–house the special object of their attack, and endeavouring to silence the Maxim by planting two nine–pounders in a clump of trees less than twelve hundred yards away. Their fire was so accurate that the men who were not working the gun had to lie down in the ash–pit between the rails, planks being placed across the opening to give them protection. One day the Chinese put eight shells into the wall within a space of twenty feet, killing and wounding seventeen of the Welsh Fusiliers, who were at that time on guard.
The French and Japanese erected sand–bag barricades along the platform, and, lying down on the rails behind, fired through loopholes. Once or twice the fighting was so close as to be nearly hand–to–hand. Between the station and the Russian camp was an undefended gap of a quarter of a mile, studded thickly with Chinese graves, which afforded excellent cover, and enabled the Boxers to advance to within a short distance of the station. One night, indeed, a number of Boxers managed to creep up unseen, getting behind some empty trucks standing by the siding, cut off the French in the station, and the British in the engine–house. It was a moment of great peril, but fortunately some Sikhs of the Hong–Kong regiment, who were coming out to relieve the blue–jackets and marines, saw the situation, and attacked the enemy. A fierce fight, lasting some three hours, ensued, the Sikhs showing the greatest courage and presence of mind, and the assailants were in the end driven off with heavy loss. The allies, however, also suffered heavily; their casualties, which occurred chiefly among the French and Japanese, amounting to nearly a hundred and fifty. The Boxers, who had been armed with rifles from the arsenal, also showed great courage, many times sallying out from between the trucks and charging with fixed bayonets, a weapon of whose use they knew so little that those on a number of the rifles picked up after the fight were still fixed in the scabbards.
The British Club had been turned into a hospital at first, but it was found to be a great deal too exposed in position, and the wounded were removed into the Gordon Hall, where they were comparatively safe. The hospitals were excellently managed, and the wounded bore all their sufferings without complaint, although terribly harassed by the flies and afflicted by the great heat. The continual bursting of shells also troubled them greatly; the explosion was serious enough to men in sound health, and it was, of course, much more trying to those who were shaken by loss of blood and had their nerves much less under control.
The French priests behaved with great courage and humanity, feeding and protecting all the Christian Chinese who came to them, Catholic and Protestant alike. Many of the Chinese women were housed in the missions, and private firms sheltered numbers of them in their warehouses; but nevertheless the Chinese Christians suffered heavily, as their houses stood for the most part in exposed positions. When Rex was off duty as a volunteer he spent the greater part of his time in visiting these poor people, carrying rice and other necessities from his father?s store–houses. He was surprised at their patience and resignation; they evinced the most touching gratitude for the welcome supplies that he brought them. The rice was generally cooked for them in the house, and Ah Lo always accompanied Rex with two pails full of the food, while Rex carried the smaller comforts in a basket.