With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations
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“There is no doubt that it was a fine action, and we, who had been left on board the ship, were very sore at being out of it; but, of course, even if we had been ashore, we should only have been with the assaulting column, and their share in the business was a very small one. The gun–boats had all the fighting and all the glory. I dare say, however, that we shall get our share presently. I don?t think the Chinese are much good in the open, but I fancy they can stick to their walls, and in the narrow streets we may have very sharp work.”
“It must have been a grand affair,” Rex said. “Fancy six little gun–boats fighting for so many hours against forts mounting nearly three hundred guns! Of course some of these couldn?t be brought to bear upon them, but there must have been enough to blow them out of the water in a quarter of an hour.”
“One would certainly think so, but we must remember that the guns had to be very much depressed, and the gunners could not very well make out the boats in the dark. Of course the flashes of their guns showed their position, but I expect the Chinese, who were new hands at the work, did not understand how to sling those heavy pieces about or give them the right elevation. There is no doubt that they stick to their guns manfully. I was talking to some of the Algerine fellows and they told me that several times when they had managed to send shell after shell close to a gun that had been annoying them, it was silent for a half a minute or so and then, when they thought that they had finished with it, the beggars began to fire again as regularly as before, though it is probable that three–fourths of the detachment before working it had been blown into smithereens.”
“Listen! Do you hear the shouting? The relief party must be coming in.”
“Oh, bother!” the middy said; “I can?t be there to see it.”
“Well, I can,” Rex said, “I will come back and tell you all about it; but I don?t suppose I shall hear much till evening. You will be off duty then, won?t you?”
“Well, then, come and dine at our place. I shall get hold of two or three of the men I went up with if I can.”
He went off at a run and soon joined a number of residents and men off duty who were awaiting the arrival of the force. The head of the column was just coming in. A portion of the relief force led, and then Admiral Seymour?s men, many of them carrying the sick and wounded on stretchers, doors, and other make–shifts. The rest of the force brought up the rear. Seeing Major Johnston coming along with his marines, Rex pressed forward to shake hands with him.
“Ah, you got through then, Bateman! I am glad to see you; I have wondered many times whether you got safely into Pekin. I certainly did not expect to see you here, though I thought we might meet when we marched into Pekin.”
“Yes, I got in all right. I stopped there till about a week ago, and then came back here. If you have nothing better to do, will you dine with us this evening, and bring Trimmer and Lawson with you?”
“With pleasure.We shall scarcely have time to make any mess arrangements for ourselves.”
“Have you had heavy fighting?”
“We have, indeed, and we have lost a good many men. I began to think at one time that we should not get back, and I believe if we had not taken the arsenal very few of us would have survived to tell the tale. However, I will tell you about that this evening.”
“Thank you! I will run home at once and tell my people that you are coming.”
Rex hurried home and told his mother that four officers were coming to dinner.
“I did not say anything about sleeping here, Mother, but if you can manage it I am sure it would be a blessing to them, for they have only just got in, and will certainly not be able to make other arrangements.”
“They will have to be content with very simple fare,” Mrs. Bateman said. “Of course, no fresh meat can be had, so we shall have to manage on tinned meat and vegetables, of which, fortunately, we have an abundant and varied supply.”
“You may be sure that they will not be particular, Mother, for I expect they have been on very short rations for some time. You give us a capital dinner every day, and I am sure you can turn out as good a one for them.”
Mrs. Bateman smiled.
“Well, I dare say we shall manage something that will be good enough for hungry men.”
Rex then went down to his friend the middy.
“I have nothing to tell you, Robinson,” he said, “but Johnston and two of his chums are going to dine with us, so you will hear it all then, and my mother says she can give you a bed for the night.”
“Thanks! that is a luxury indeed, Bateman, only it will be awful getting up so as to be here on duty again at six in the morning.”
“Oh, nonsense! no one wants to sleep after five in this weather. I am generally up soon after four.”
“Yes, but you must remember that I have had no sleep to speak of for the past three days, and the chances are that we shan?t turn in until midnight, as we shall have to hear all about the expedition. However, I will put in as much sleep as I can between that hour and five. I had a good four hours this morning.”
At half–past seven the three marines and the middy arrived at Mr. Bateman?s. Rex had, an hour before, gone to Major Johnston, and told him that it had been arranged that he and his friends were to sleep in the house.
“That will be a great comfort, Bateman,” he said; “we have not had our clothes off for three weeks, and it will be delicious to lie down between sheets and to have a bath in the morning. I warn you, though, that we shall want a bath before dinner, for we can?t sit down to a table as we are.”
“All right, Major! if you come round in half an hour you will find one ready for you.”
Accordingly, on their arrival they were shown at once to their rooms.
“I cannot tell you, Bateman,” the major said as they came downstairs again, “how much we are obliged to you. A good dinner is not a thing to be despised, but a bath is even a greater luxury. I am sure I could not have enjoyed dinner unless I had had the bath, for we have had few opportunities for washing since we left here.”
An excellent dinner was served, and was greatly enjoyed by the four guests.
“I can assure you, Mr. Bateman,” the major said, “that while eating your good fare it is difficult to believe that the past three weeks have not been a very uncomfortable dream.”
“How have you been getting on, Mr. Robinson, since you came here?” Mr. Bateman asked.
“Nothing to grumble at, sir. We had pretty hard work the first two days, but, thanks to your son, we now have a quiet day of it.”
Rex uttered a sharp warning ejaculation as Robinson spoke, but he had not thought of telling him that he and his companions wished nothing to be said about the adventure.
“Thanks to my son!” Mr. Bateman repeated in surprise; “what can Rex have had to do with it?”
The midshipman, who had too late heard Rex?s ejaculation, hesitated.
“I did not know that he had not told you, sir,” he said, “or else you may be sure I should have said nothing about it.”
“Well, but what was it?” he asked.
The midshipman looked appealingly at Rex, and the latter said: “Well, Father, it was a little enterprise that Watson and Laurence and I carried out on our own account; nothing worth talking about.”
“Well, but what was it, Rex?” his father persisted. “Mr. Robinson says that it has given him better times.”
“Well, Father, the fact is, we three and Ah Lo went out and silenced those two guns that were so annoying for some days.”
“Well, but how did you do it, Rex? Now we know so much, of course we want to know the rest. What do you know about it, Mr. Robinson?”
“Well, sir, all I really know about it is that your son came to me and asked me to allow a lantern to stand on the barricade. Of course I said that there was no objection to that. Then we went back fifty or sixty yards and placed another lantern on a window, so that the two lanterns together were in the exact line with those guns. At midnight Rex and his two friends, with the Chinaman, went out, and that is practically all I know about the matter. I certainly had no idea that Rex had kept the affair a secret. It is certainly a thing of which he had a right to feel very proud, for it was a plucky business, and one which I was very much tempted to take part in.”
“Now then, Bateman,” Major Johnston said, “you see your light cannot be hid under a bushel, so you had better make a clean breast of the affair.”
Rex saw that it was of no use making any further mystery of it, so he briefly explained how the idea had come into his mind, and how Watson and Laurence had agreed to join him, the steps they had taken for placing the lantern to enable them to find the guns in the dark, how Robinson had explained the working of the various parts of the guns to them, and how they had carried their plan into successful execution.
“You ought not have done it,” his father said, when he had finished.
“But,” Major Johnston said, “I don?t think, Mr. Bateman, that your son is to be blamed. It was a splendidly plucky action for which everyone in the settlement should thank him, for it appears that these guns were doing an immense amount of damage. It was an act which I or any other officer in Her Majesty?s service would have been proud to perform.”
“I admit all that,” Mr. Bateman said, “but Rex is always running into danger. I grant that so far he has got through safely, but you know the result of taking a pitcher to a well too often.”
“I don?t think he is likely to come to harm,” the major said, “for it is not as if he undertook these things without thoroughly working his plans out, so that failure is almost an impossibility. On our way up he gave me a brief account of how he had got his cousins out of that rascally governor?s yamen. I could not get the full details out of him, but judging from what he told me it was certainly an admirably–managed affair. I think, Mr. Bateman, that you have a right to be very proud of him. If he had been in the army he would certainly have earned a V. C. for the way in which he silenced those guns.”
“Yes, I admit all that,” Mr. Bateman said, “and won?t scold, but all this keeps his mother and myself in a state of great anxiety.”
“I don?t think, Father,” Rex said, “that in an affair of this sort the risk is anything compared with that which one runs in a regular fight. These little excursions I have made have had very little risk in them – practically none. When you come to think of it, I can pass anywhere as a Chinaman, and as I have always travelled at night I have been exposed to practically no danger whatever.”
“And so you had sharp fighting here, Mr. Bateman?” the major said, changing the subject.
“Not actually severe fighting; that is, the Chinese have never got up really close to us, although they have made a good many rushes, but the bombardment has been very heavy. The French settlement is practically destroyed, and a large number of our houses will have to be rebuilt. But worse than the artillery fire has been the sniping, which has been continuous all round, but more especially on the other side of the river, where it has been absolutely incessant, and where it has been dangerous in the extreme to show one?s nose outside one?s door. We have done our best to keep it down, but I cannot say that success has attended our efforts, for the Chinese have lain hid among the houses and ruins, and never show themselves except to fire.”
“Have the casualties been heavy?”
“No; very slight indeed, which,” he added with a smile, “speaks well either for our prudence or for the bad marksmanship of the enemy. We have brought cannon to bear upon them, but they stick there with great tenacity, and I fancy we shall find it very hard work to drive them out from Tientsin. There is the fort, and the yamen, and several other strong buildings; the wall, too, and its defences are strong, and if they stick there as stubbornly as they have done across the river, the city will certainly not be taken without considerable loss of life.”
“Do you know when we are going to begin, Mr. Bateman?”
“I believe the Russians are going to turn out to–morrow morning; they have only been waiting for your return. Now, I fancy, they will consider that we have strength enough for anything.”
“I should think we have,” the major said. “I am sorry to say that you must not put Seymour?s force above half the strength at which it started. There has been a lot of illness, we have suffered much from hunger and privation, we lost a good many men in the attack on the forts, and many of those still in the ranks will not be fit for service until they have had a few days? rest. If we put a thousand in line to–morrow it would be as much as could be fairly calculated upon. Still, many of those who would not be fit to take part in the attack would be useful for the defence of the town if the Chinese should make a counter attack while the best part of the force is away.”
“Now, Major, we are all burning with curiosity to know what has happened to you while you have been away. We have heard a score of rumours, but not one authentic fact. We heard that you had entered Pekin, that you had been massacred, that you had disappeared as effectually off the face of the earth as if it had opened and swallowed you up. The very first news we got of your existence was from my son, who reported that on his way down from Pekin he heard heavy and continuous firing in the arsenal of Hsi–Ku, and he concluded that your force must be engaged. Some thought that you must be attacking the place, others that you had taken it and were now besieged. The latter certainly seemed the most reasonable, unless indeed, it was fight between the Boxers and the regular Chinese troops; for if you had not got possession of the arsenal, it was impossible to imagine how you had obtained sufficient provisions to keep you alive so long.”
“Yes, that supposition was the correct one, and we were quite on our last legs before we took the place.”
“Well, will you please tell us the whole story; it is not nine o?clock yet, so that, unless you are so dead tired that you cannot go through with it, you will get it done in reasonable time.”
“I shall be very happy to do so,” the major said. “If you had asked me this afternoon when we came in, I should have said frankly that I did not feel equal to it; but the bath and the excellent dinner you have given us, have quite set me on my legs again.
“You will already have heard from your son what happened on our way up from Lang Fang, and of the little fight we had on the 14th of June. Well, the next day the outposts ran in and reported that the Boxers were at hand in great numbers. The enemy arrived close on their heels and made a determined rush at the fore part of the leading train, which was drawn up beside a well, where the men were engaged in watering. They were met by a withering fire, but pushed on with extreme bravery and did not fall back until some of them actually reached the train. Then they could do no more, and retreated, leaving about a hundred dead. This certainly gave us a better idea of their courage, and the difficulties we should be likely to encounter, than anything that had yet happened.
“At half–past five in the afternoon a messenger arrived on a trolley from the rear, to say that Lofa station was attacked by a very strong force of the enemy. Number two train had steam up, and the admiral at once took a strong force down in it. On their arrival at the station they found that the fight was over, and the enemy having fallen back discomfited, the reinforcements started in pursuit, and harried their retreat for some distance, accounting for about a hundred of them and capturing a few small cannon.
“The next day we remained at Lang Fang, a strong body being employed in repairing the line. Under the protection of a guard a train went back to Lofa, and on its return we learned that the repairs we had affected on the line beyond that place had been a good deal broken up. Later, the officer of the guard at Lofa came in, and reported that three large bodies of Boxers were moving about in the distance, and that he expected an attack would be made on the station. However, they moved off quietly. They were probably on their way to destroy the line, for a train that left at four the next morning for Tientsin came back in the afternoon, with the news that the line was so completely broken up round Lofa that it could not be repaired with the materials and men on board.
“The admiral left an hour later to see for himself the state of the line. He pushed on for some distance, his men repairing the line as they went, till he reached Yangstun, but only to find that beyond that point the line was entirely destroyed. It was now evident to the admiral, and to all of us, that if we continued to stop at Lang Fang we should ere long have to stop there permanently, for our provisions were almost entirely exhausted. The admiral had seen this some days before, and had sent off several messengers to Tientsin to ask that junks should be sent up the river, and ammunition and provisions forwarded by train to Yangtsun, his intention being to establish a base there. But we never heard any more of these messengers, and the fact stared us in the face that we were absolutely cut off from Tientsin.”