George Henty.

With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations





While this conversation had been going on, Mrs. Bateman had left the room.

You had better sit down and eat your breakfast, Rex. You can give me a cup of tea; I could not eat anything now. Kate is very dear to me, and so are the girls. They were here twice while you were away, and stayed with us each time for some weeks.

I don?t remember much about the girls, father. The elder was three years younger than I, and was quite a child, and Mabel was two years younger still.

They were growing up very nice girls, Mr. Bateman said sadly. Jenny is now nearly fifteen and Mabel thirteen. Of course they had not the freshness of girls brought up at home, and I spoke to their mother when she was up here, and wrote to your uncle, urging that they should go home for a couple of years, and offering to pay all their expenses. He said that in another year he would take the matter into consideration.

Rex ate a few mouthfuls, and then went out into the courtyard. Ah Lo was sitting there. By his serious face Rex saw that he had heard the news.

This is a terrible business, Rex began.

A very bad business, master.

Is there anything to be done, do you think?

The Chinaman knit his eyebrows. What could be done? he asked.

That I don?t know; but it is horrible to sit here and do nothing when my aunt and cousins are, if they are alive, prisoners, and may be put to horrible tortures before they are killed.

Ah Lo was silent.

Do you think you and I could get there and try to rescue them?

The Chinaman?s eyes opened wide. Do you really mean that, young master?

Yes; I do not see why we should not get there all right, though I don?t say that we could rescue them. We could both dress up as villagers, or as Boxers if you like, and as I speak Chinese as well as you do, I don?t see why we should not both make our way through. I could stain my skin just a little so as to get it just the right colour, and shave my head and put on a pigtail. Many Chinese wear spectacles, great things with thick rims.

Villagers do not often wear them, master, though the literati who wear their eyes out in staring at a book often do. You could not go as one of them, for you do not speak the same language.

Well, I should think that you might paint a little line in each corner of my eyes so as to make them look a little up and down like the Chinese eyes.

Ah Lo had better go alone, the Chinaman said quietly.

Not at all, Rex said. My aunt and cousins are a great deal to me, they are nothing to you, and I certainly won?t let you go alone.

The master would never let you go, Ah Lo said positively.

I don?t suppose he would; but he would not know anything about it until I had gone. I should leave a letter behind telling him why I had gone, and that I was so disguised that I could pass for a Chinaman anywhere. I should say also that I know my chance of succeeding is not great, but that I consider the risk of being found out is still less.

I should, of course, promise to take every precaution.

The master would never forgive me, Ah Lo said.

Oh, yes! he would. I should say further that I had made up my mind to go, and that I told you that if you did not go with me I should go alone, which I mean to do. I am some months past sixteen now, and I think I can take care of myself, though I should feel a great deal more comfortable having you with me.

CHAPTER III
IN DISGUISE

Well, what do you think of it, Ah Lo?

If you have quite made up your mind, young master, I will go with you, Ah Lo said quietly; if I return with you the master will not say much, and certainly if you do not return I shall not.

Thank you, Ah Lo! Now, let us settle at once how we shall go, for every hour is of importance. Which do you think would be best, to go as villagers or as Boxers?

I think as villagers, master. We can go from village to village with the tale that we have been coolies working here, and that now there is no trade and no employment we are going to visit our family, who live near Chafui. We can carry with us clothes such as the Boxers wear, either red or yellow, so that when we get to Chafui we can put them on if we like. Of course we shall take swords and long knives.

I have the two revolvers my uncle gave me when I came away, Rex said; we can each carry one of them. As we shall say that we come from Tientsin, the fact that we have revolvers would excite no suspicion. If we are questioned we could easily say that we took them secretly from our employer?s house when we came away from here. I have got a good stock of cartridges. Of course many of the Boxers are armed with good rifles, but would a villager be carrying them?

No, but a coolie from here might do so. Numbers of the Boxers have been killed near Tientsin, and there would be nothing improbable in the statement that as we left the town we had picked up two rifles. A good many rifles are still lying in the suburbs where the fighting went on; if you go out there this morning you might find a couple, for the streets are quite deserted, and then you might put them in a doorway where we could find them as we went along. You would also have to find some packets of cartridges. When shall we start, master?

If we can be ready to start tonight all the better.

There can be no difficulty about that. I know many native shops where I can get the clothes, and there are plenty of dead Boxers from whom I could take red suits. You could not get your head shaved here, but I will carry a razor and soap with me, and in the morning, first thing, will shave your head. I can buy a pigtail in the town, as many people who have not much hair use false pigtails, and I have no doubt that plenty of them are to be found in the empty shops in the native town.

Shall we require to take any food with us?

We can take enough rice for our journey, master, and we can get tea anywhere; but you will have to do without anything else.

That makes no difference at all; I can do very well on rice, and I can take some of the condiments we use with it. Even if we are searched, these will be as natural as the rice.

Is there anything else that you can think of, master?

No, I cannot think of anything else at present, but I shall see you again later, and can then fix on the hour for starting.

During the time when the danger was at its greatest the house had never been so silent, or the face of Mr. Bateman so grave. His wife was absolutely prostrated. This added to the resolution the lad had taken. At whatever risk he might incur, his aunt and cousins must be rescued if they were alive when he reached Chafui, and it were within the limits of possibility to do so. He did not think that the journey in itself really involved any risk, and should he find that all had been massacred he had but to return. He knew how precious his life was in the eyes of his parents, and he resolved to take every means possible to avoid risk. Even if the news he brought back were of the worst, it would be better for his mother than the terrible anxiety that she was now suffering as to the fate of his aunt and cousins.

In the course of the day he wrote a letter to his father, which ran as follows:

My Dear Father,

When you receive this I shall be miles away. As you know, as far as talking goes, I can pass anywhere as a native; and as I shall be thoroughly disguised, I feel sure that with Ah Lo I could go right through China without being suspected. Seeing how terribly anxious my mother and you are about the safety of Aunt and the girls, I have made up my mind to go to Chafui to gather news of them. I am sure that it would be better for Mother to know even the worst than to suffer this terrible anxiety. I do not think I shall run any risk whatever.

I must tell you that though Ah Lo is going with me it is very much against his will, because he thought that you would blame him if things went wrong, and it was only when I told him that if he did not go with me I should go alone that he consented to accompany me. It was not that he thought of the danger, but that he feared you would be displeased with him for undertaking this journey without your permission. I don?t think that I should have carried out the threat. Although I know the language well enough I do not know anything of the customs and the religion, and I felt that it would really be a hazardous enterprise if Ah Lo did not go with me. Now, however, that at last he has consented to accompany me, I have no fear whatever.

I should have asked your permission to undertake this expedition, but I was afraid that you would refuse, and I felt so sure of being able to accomplish my purpose without difficulty that I decided to go without telling you of my intention. You see, Father, it is evident that after what is going on every white man in China will be in peril for a long time to come, and as it is settled that I am going to stay here for at any rate a good many years, I shall have to run risks, and those risks will be greater than any I am likely to meet with now that I am going in disguise. I am quite prepared for emergencies, so I hope that you will not be angry, though I know you will be anxious until I return.

Ah Lo?s native village is only a few miles from Chafui, and his story that, as there was no longer work to be done in Tientsin, he was going for a time to see his friends is plausible. Indeed, we shall probably stay there among his friends and learn all that has taken place in the town, so that everything will be easy sailing. You must not expect me back for about a month. It will take us ten days to walk to Chafui, ten days to stay at Ah Lo?s village and get full information, and ten to return. That is as near as I can tell at present. There may be unexpected delays, but anyhow we shall not be back in less than a month. Should I find that I am likely to be much longer away, I shall, if possible, send one of Ah Lo?s people down with a message to you.

Of course, Father, you can, if you think best, tell Mother where I have gone, and why, or lead her to believe that I have gone down to the coast to make arrangements with ships that have arrived with goods for you, or to act as an interpreter to the troops as they come up.

I believe that if I had never gone to England I should not have thought of carrying out such a plan as this, but one gets to think for one?s self when one is at school. I feel sure that there was scarcely a fellow of my age there who, if he had the advantages in the way of speaking languages that I have, would not willingly have undertaken the job. Certainly I feel that the amount of risk to be run is very small compared with the importance of relieving Mother?s mind and yours, and, of course, though it is some years since I have seen my aunt and cousins, I, too, am very anxious.

That evening he felt even more than before that the proposed expedition was excusable, for his father said: I am terribly anxious, Rex. Your mother has been delirious all the afternoon, and the doctors are both feeling very anxious about her mind. You see, we have all gone through the strain of the last two months, and this blow coming on the top of it has had a very much greater effect than it would have had in ordinary circumstances. They think that if she had known for certain that her sister and the girls had been killed, the shock would have had less disastrous effects than this terrible uncertainty. It may be weeks, it may even be months, before the truth can be known and her mind relieved of the strain. They fear that when the present paroxysms have passed away she may settle down into a state of fixed melancholia, and if bad news came then it might simply deepen this melancholia, which would in that case become permanent.

It is indeed terrible, Father, but I hope that the doctors? view is a mistaken one.

Mr. Bateman shook his head and passed his handkerchief across his eyes, and if up to that time Rex had had any doubt that he was going to act wisely, he felt now that, even apart from his own anxiety about his aunt and cousins, he was fully justified by his mother?s state in carrying out his plan.

At eleven o?clock that night he crept out of the house. He had dyed his skin with a mixture which Ah Lo had brought him, dressed himself in the native clothes, and put the sword, knife, and pistol in his belt. In a bundle he had three boxes of ammunition and the Boxer clothes, together with a pair of light boots to put on when there were no villages near, in case the Chinese shoes should gall his feet. Ah Lo was at the gate of the courtyard. He wore no disguise, but had put on coarse coolie clothes instead of those he wore as a trusted servant in the house.

Have you got everything, Ah Lo?

Everything; ten pounds of rice, the box of clothes, the ammunition for the pistols, another bottle of the dye for your skin, some black dye for your eyebrows and eyelashes, and a little brown for the corners of your eyes. I have changed the piece of gold you gave me for dollars in cash, and I have got a pigtail and the razor and soap.

I have bought a small compass, Rex said. It may be useful to us going across the country, for I know that the roads are mostly tracks between the villages and cross each other in all directions.

On leaving the premises they picked up Rex?s rifle and bag of ammunition, and the rifle that Ah Lo had bought during the day and had hidden away outside the settlement. Then they made a detour to avoid the native town, and, when once fairly beyond this, struck out across the fields. They made a long detour to avoid the encampment of Chinese soldiers, and then struck into a steady walk.

When a few miles from the town they saw fires burning, and made another detour to avoid these, knowing that they marked the position of parties of Boxers. They walked steadily all night, and in the morning reached a village, having made, as they calculated, at least thirty miles. Few people were about. Burnt cottages showed that the Boxers had passed that way and, as usual, had looted and destroyed everything they could lay hands on. Indeed, not being a regularlyorganized body, they were forced to depend upon what they could take for subsistence, and were the scourge of the districts through which they passed.

So you are going to Chafui! said an old man whom they had asked if there were any Boxers in the neighbourhood. You will have to be very careful. Those who have been attacking Tientsin are still in that neighbourhood, but you may come across other parties marching down to join them. They are terrible people. If anyone refuses to give them all that they ask for, they will kill everyone in the house and burn it afterwards. They make most of the young men go with them to fight the whites in Tientsin. It is a terrible time. I can remember the Taiping rebellion, and this seems to me to be quite as bad. They all say that the Empress is in their favour, but I cannot believe it. They tell terrible tales about the missionaries; but I lived for some time at Chafui, and it seemed to me that they were good and peaceful people, and although I stay so near Tientsin I have not till of late heard a word against the merchants there. They have indeed done much good for the town; they pay those who work for them well and do no harm to anyone. A son of mine worked for them for ten years, and came back with enough money to live comfortably all his life. He was a good son, and helped me as a son should do, but the Boxers killed him a month ago because he ventured to say that so far from doing harm the foreigners enriched the town and brought much trade into it.

I shall take care to keep my mouth shut when I get home, Ah Lo said. I too have worked for them and found them good masters and just people, but after what you have told me I shall take care not to say a word in their favour.

You will be wise not to do so. And now you say you wish to sleep, as you have walked all night. You can lie down in the room upstairs; no one will disturb you. We used to be glad to question strangers who came along, for further news, but now our own troubles are quite as much as we can think of. I fear that this will continue until the last of the seapirates is killed; after that who can say what will happen!

After cooking the rice they had bought, and eating a meal, they went upstairs and slept for many hours. As soon as night fell they continued their journey, and on the seventh morning after starting they arrived within a few miles of Chafui. They had met with no adventures on the way. Several times they went into the fields and hid among growing grain to avoid a party of the enemy, and once, just as they had arrived in a village, a band of Boxers came in, but they managed to slip out of the house unobserved and spent the night in the fields.

They had agreed that they would not enter Chafui until they had first paid a visit to Ah Lo?s native village, where they would be able to learn the state of things in the town. They could then decide whether it would be best to put on their Boxer dresses or not. They had scarcely entered the village when Ah Lo was recognized. As one of his old friends shouted his name and a welcome, people ran out from all the houses to greet them, and by the time he reached his father?s door he was surrounded by a crowd of friends and neighbours, and Rex understood for the first time how very close was the family bond in China.

It was five years since Ah Lo had been there, and he was greeted as a wanderer returning to his parents, and bringing, no doubt, some of the proceeds of his labours. Indeed, the villagers had already benefited, for while he was in England he regularly forwarded a portion of his wages to his parents. Thus he bore a good name. He had never brought any trouble upon the village; he had never been called upon to pay a fine for his misdeeds; and his father and mother were considered fortunate people in having such a son. They too had come to the door, attracted by the loud talking outside, and their delight at his return was touching.

When at last they had entered the house and closed the door the old man said: We have been uneasy about you. The message telling us of your return, and your welcome present, gave us at first great joy; but when, two days later, the disturbances began we trembled for your safety, and have offered up many prayers to Buddha to preserve you for us. But I see that things have gone wrong with you. Last time you came you were well clad, and all said truly, Ah Lo is making his fortune?; but now your clothes are those of a common man.

I have so clad myself, Father, in order to escape plunder on my way with my friend here. He too belongs to the white merchant for whom I have worked so long. Like myself he wanted to escape from the city where there was such fierce fighting, and as trade was at a standstill we had no difficulty in getting away.

He is welcome for your sake, the old man said. If he is your friend, assuredly he is our friend also, and he shall share with us all we have, which, indeed, we owe chiefly to you. And have you come to stay with us for good, Ah Lo?

No, Father, I have come to gather news, and that partly on business; so my pay is still going on. As you know, the missionary at Chafui is the brother of my patron at least his wife is sister of my patron?s wife. News has reached him that there were bad doings at Chafui, and consequently he and his wife are greatly disturbed; so I said that I would come here and learn the truth of the reports that we had heard.

It is true, his father said. The Boxers came to Chafui and stirred up the people of the town, and they ran together and attacked the prayinghouse and the people who have taken to the strange religion. The missionary fought hard when they attacked his house, but what could he and a handful of his followers do against many hundreds? The soldiers did not move to help him, and the house was taken and he was killed. The women of the family were carried to the governor?s yamen. It was reported that his wife has died from grief and terror, but I cannot say whether that is true; of her daughters I have not heard.

This confirmation of his worst fears was a terrible blow to Rex, who with difficulty restrained himself from bursting into tears.

That is bad news indeed, Ah Lo said gravely. It will be a heavy blow to my patron and his wife, and I myself am sorely grieved, as is also Shen Yo, my companion; for we have both seen the lady and her children when they have been staying at our patron?s house. They were good people and kindly, and assuredly never did anyone any harm.

They were well spoken of, Ah Lo?s father said: no one had any harm to say of them. It was not until the Boxers stirred up the rabble of the town against these Christians that there was any disturbance here. It was always said that the governor was unfavourable to the Christians, but as they gave no cause of complaint things have always gone on quietly enough, as the orders from Pekin always have been that they should not be molested. But for some weeks past we have heard reports that the Empress had turned her face against them, and that her counsellors were of opinion that these foreign people should be destroyed or driven from the country. We even heard that men were being drilled in Pekin; but people in general did not think much of these things until the Boxers grew numerous and began to create disturbances. Many of us were grieved, for the white people had shown much kindness and had given good medicines to people who were ill, and in other ways had done much good. But, of course, when the Empress and her counsellors had given the word to kill, no one would venture to withstand the Boxers and the rabble of the town. The governor knew the will of those in high places, and when word was sent to him of what was being done, he remained in his yamen and kept the soldiers quiet, so that no one dared to lift a finger to aid the whites. Many tales were told of their ill doings; how they stole little children and sacrificed them to their gods; but for myself I did not believe these things. We have always heard from you that the whites were good people, that they treated all natives well, and assuredly if you had heard of such doings as this you would not have remained with them. Therefore we did not believe these tales to their disadvantage, but we should only have thrown away our lives if we had ventured to express our feelings. Even in the village most people believed the tales, and said it was good that the foreign devils should be destroyed, so now that you have come back you must not speak in favour of these people or you will assuredly lose your life.





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