With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations
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“Now, my lads, you can give them independent fire as quick as you like; there is no fear of their closing with us now.”
The Boxers who had crossed the line began to move back and join their companions, and the approaching blue–jackets at once opened fire upon them with rifles and Maxims. The reinforcements soon joined Major Johnston?s party, and under his lead attacked the village and drove the Boxers from it. Following hotly upon their heels, they forced them also to retire from another village with the loss of some forty killed and wounded.
Rex?s services were at once called into requisition. He slung his rifle behind him, and set to work to interrogate seven wounded Boxers who had fallen into our hands. From them he learned that farther back the line had been almost entirely pulled up, that the forces there were very numerous, and their strength had just been increased by the addition of ten thousand regular troops, who had been nominally disbanded in order that they could join the Boxers, while the Government might be able still to affirm that the Boxers were acting in defiance of their orders and that no Imperial troops had joined them. They said, too, that a considerable proportion of the troops in Pekin had been brought to the southern gate to oppose the relieving army if they broke through the forces opposed to them. Rex learned that two days previously there had been fighting in Pekin and that it was expected that the Legations would all be taken in the course of a few days.
The army advanced no farther that night, but the next day pushed on to Lang Fang, which was half–way to Pekin. They found all the station buildings destroyed and three hundred yards of the track torn up. Boxers were seen busy in the work of destruction, but when a shell was dropped among them they fled. A patrol that went out reported that a mile and a quarter of the track had been destroyed.
The news that he had learned from the wounded Boxers on the previous day had excited in Rex a burning desire to push forward. The position in Pekin seemed to be precarious, and he became so impatient to get to the principal scene of action that he determined to leave the army and make his way up in disguise. It was evident that if the line was, as it seemed, almost totally destroyed beyond this point, the progress of the relief column must be extremely slow. As the troops must hold to the railway, for they had no other means of carriage, it seemed to Rex highly improbable that they would be able to fight their way into Pekin. Having made up his mind, he went to Major Johnston.
“I am most anxious to go forward,” he said. “We know that the Legations are attacked, not seriously perhaps at present, but they may be so any day. It appears to me very doubtful whether this expedition will be able to fight their way into the town, and if they do so it must be a considerable time before they get there. I do not know that if the place were taken I should be able to get my cousins off, but at least I could try.At any rate, I have brought my native disguise with me, and have no doubt that I can make my way into Pekin. How I shall get into the Legation I don?t know, but I think that by mixing with the Boxers I shall be able to make my way in at night. Is there any occasion, sir, for me to inform Admiral Seymour of my intentions?”
“None at all, Bateman. I shall probably have an opportunity of speaking to him in the morning, and shall mention to him that you have started to make your way in alone. It is a risky business, I know, and I wish you well through it. I begin to think that you were quite right when you said that the opposition would be greater than we expected. We only reckoned upon the Boxers, and did not think that they would tear up the railway. It is now evident that our difficulties will increase with every foot that we advance. I trust, however, that if we do have to fall back, the Legations will be able to hold out. Our people may be driven from some of the outlying places, but I should think that if the whole of the defenders are concentrated at our Legation they ought to be able to defend it as long as food and water hold out. You did not hear, I suppose, when you were there, how they were provided in that respect.”
“No, I did not hear anything about it. You see, when I was there the ambassadors still clung to the belief that the Empress was favourably disposed towards foreigners. As far as I could hear, no one else thought so; but I am afraid that they did not believe it necessary at that time to lay in provisions for a siege, and if the native Christians take refuge with them they will want a very large supply.
“Very well, sir; then as soon as it is dark I shall make off. I shall make straight for the river and follow its course. It is certain that the greater portion of the enemy will be gathered close to the line of railway, and I don?t anticipate any difficulty in making my way up. Pekin is only some forty or forty–five miles from here, and I shall enter it to–morrow. I shall, of course, make a circuit of the city and go in at the northern gate, and in that way I shall probably have no difficulty whatever until I get near the Legation.”
That afternoon Rex said “Good–bye” to the other officers of his acquaintance, and as soon as it was dusk, coloured his skin, touched up his eyebrows and eyelashes, painted a line from the corners of his eyes so as to give them an upward inclination, fastened on his pigtail again, and set out with Ah Lo. As he had anticipated, they experienced no difficulty in making their way up. Occasionally they saw parties of Boxers on the banks of the river, and had to make detours to avoid them, but by morning they saw the towers of Pekin ahead. Turning aside into a field of standing grain they lay down and slept for some hours, and when they awoke they made a detour round the city and entered by the northern gate. As no troops were stationed here, they went on unquestioned into the city.
As they advanced they came upon many ruined houses, and at one point a large tract had been cleared by fire. Many dead lay in the streets, for the most part horribly slashed and mutilated. Bands of roughs were still searching ruined houses for loot. In some parts business was still going on; the better class of shops were all closed, but those that supplied the poor were open, and the inhabitants were going about their usual avocations as if nothing had happened.
As they neared the Legations they could hear occasional firing. In this part the shops were all closed, and there was no traffic whatever in the streets. At some points large numbers of Boxers were gathered. Avoiding these, they turned into a narrow lane which led towards the British Legation. They went nearly to the end of this, and here Rex entered a doorway, took off his Chinese clothes, under which he had his own, wrapped up his pigtail, and put over it a Scotch cap he had carried with him. Then he and Ah Lo started out at a run for the Legation. Here and there men were grouped on the walls, and these, on seeing a European coming along, shouted words of welcome to him. Half a dozen shots were fired from neighbouring houses, but they arrived at the entrance untouched. A dozen soldiers were stationed here.
“You have managed that well, sir,” the sergeant in command said as they entered. “Have you come far?”
“I have come on from the relieving force. They are at Lang Fang.”
“Will they be here soon, sir?”
“I very much doubt whether they will get through at all. The line is all torn up, and they will be opposed by an immense force. I fear that you will have to wait till a much bigger force is gathered.”
“That is bad news, sir, but I expect we shall hold out all right. They don?t seem very anxious to come to close quarters.”
Rex went straight to the ambassador?s quarters and sent in his name, and he was at once admitted.
“So you are back again, Mr. Bateman?”
“Yes, sir; I came up with the relieving force two thousand strong under Admiral Seymour. They had reached Lang Fang, but I have great doubts whether they will get much farther, as the railway has been completely destroyed, and they are without means of carriage. There is no doubt that they will be met by an ever–increasing resistance as they move forward, and twenty thousand regular troops have moved round to the south gate to oppose them if they get as far as that. The communications are already cut behind them, and so large a force is concentrated near Tientsin that that town will probably be attacked.
“The Taku Forts will be attacked very shortly. Troops are on their way from India, Port Arthur, and Japan, and I have no doubt that before long an army will be gathered sufficiently strong to fight its way up. But I fear that it must be some weeks before they are in a position to do so.”
“Do you bring any despatches for me?”
“No, sir; I was afraid that if I mentioned to the admiral that I was coming on, he would object, so I came off of my own account. I had learned that the Legations were being attacked, and I was most anxious to be here to cheer my cousins up, and to endeavour to do what I could for them if things went badly.”
“Very well, Mr. Bateman, I am glad of the news that you have brought me, though it is not satisfactory, but I own that I have had my own doubts whether the force that is coming up was strong enough to make its way here. It is better, however, to know the worst. We shall be glad of the assistance of your rifle and that of your man, for we are very short–handed, and even the aid of two rifles is not to be despised. You had better take up your quarters, as before, at the college.”
Rex withdrew, and at once went to the doctor?s house.
“I am glad to be able to tell you,” said the doctor, “that the young ladies have now pretty well recovered, and if the railway were working I should say that they could very safely be taken down to Tientsin. As it is, however, they will have to wait until reinforcements come up.”
“Then I can see them, sir?”
“Certainly; the elder girl is quite recovered, and the younger one is convalescent, but is still weak. It will do her good rather than harm to see you, for they have necessarily been somewhat lonely, as everyone here is busy. The ladies have all been occupied in making sacks to hold earth for the fortifications, and the girls have therefore been left more to themselves than they otherwise would have been.”
Rex at once went across to the house. The girls leapt up with a cry of delight as he entered.
“Oh, Rex,” cried Jenny, “we are glad to see you! When did you return?”
“About half an hour ago. I had to come up in the disguise I wore before. You know, I suppose, that we are quite cut off from Tientsin now?”
“So we have heard, and they say that there is going to be fighting here?”
“Yes, but there is no doubt that we shall beat them off. You need not be uneasy.”
“Oh, we are sure of that! I feel quite different from what we did before. For the past three or four days I have been helping to make sacks, and even Mabel has done a little. And how are Uncle and Aunt?”
“They are all right. I believe my father will have his share of fighting, for a great force of Chinese has gathered outside the town, and they expect to be attacked. It is hoped, however, that the ships will destroy the Taku Forts, in which case the light craft will make their way up to Tientsin. Then, of course, every man that can be spared from the ships will join the relief column.”
“But I thought that they were on their way up now, and that we were expecting them here to–day?”
“I am sorry to say, dear, that I think there is very little chance of their coming at all at present. I came up with Ah Lo.”
The girls looked at each other in dismay.
“Then how long do you think it will be before they really come up?”
“I am afraid it will be many weeks. Large reinforcements of British troops are coming from India, Russians have been despatched from Port Arthur, and any number of Japanese, and French, and Germans are being sent forward; but it must be some time before they are all here, and we must make up our minds that we are going to hold our own.”
Then he changed the subject.
“And so you are getting stronger, Mabel? You are looking ever so much better.”
“Oh yes! I am feeling ever so much better, and the doctor says I shall soon be strong and well again.
“We are getting quite full here now, for numbers of the native Christians are coming in for shelter. Everyone is told off to do something. Jenny is to help serve out food to the women and children, and I expect that I shall soon be able to assist also.”
“Yes, I expect we shall all be made useful,” said Rex.
“Ah Lo has come up too, I suppose?”
“Yes, he came with me as a matter of course, and we shall both aid in the defence.”
“I wish I were a boy,” Jenny said. “I should like to help kill some of the Boxers. I dare say a good many of those who were at Chafui have come here and will be among those who are going to attack us.”
“You will be just as useful in your own way, Jenny, as if you were a boy and could carry a gun.”
“You must give us each a pistol, Rex, so that if they should take the place we can shoot ourselves. We have both made up our minds that we will do that rather than fall into their hands again. You don?t think it would be wicked to kill ourselves, do you?”
“Certainly not, Jenny; but in the first place I don?t think that there is much chance of their capturing the Legations, and in the next place I hope that if they did so, Ah Lo and I should be able to get you out again in disguise. But at any rate I don?t think you need have any fear. There are four hundred soldiers here, and the employees of all the Legations would certainly make a hundred more. Besides these there are the merchants and other people, and I expect they will form a corps out of the Christians who have come in. Most of these Legations are strong buildings, and it will be hard if we cannot beat off any attack. It is lucky that all the Legations lie within a short distance of each other, and can all be defended together. When I leave you I will go round and see what has been done to fortify them.”
He stayed chatting with them for another half–hour, and then went down to the college.
“I have turned up again like a bad penny, Sandwich,” he said, as he met his friend, “and am quartered here.”
“We shall all be heartily glad to have you with us, and I regard you and your man as a valuable reinforcement. Have you heard that this morning the Boxers have begun to massacre the native Christians? I believe that great numbers have been killed.”
“They ought all to have come in here,” Rex said.
“No doubt we should have done the best we could for them,” Sandwich said, “but we should have had a lot of difficulty in feeding ten thousand of them. Though I am awfully sorry for the poor beggars, their presence here would scarcely be an advantage, for they would hamper us terribly in our defence. You will have to put up with bad cooking unless some of these Christians that are coming in turn out to be decent cooks, for the servants and coolies are all leaving. You should see Sergeant Herring talking to them as they go out!”
Rex laughed. He had already made the acquaintance of the sergeant, who had been twenty years at the Legation, and who was in general control of its arrangements. He was a big man, with a powerful voice and an authoritative manner, and ruled the coolies with a rod of iron. He was a well–known figure in the city, and was regarded by the populace as being only less important than the ambassador himself.
“I can quite fancy him,” Rex said, “and how the coolies would sneak off under the thunder of his voice. Well, I should say that we are just as well rid of the coolies. I don?t suppose they could have been relied upon. They are not like the native Christians, who, knowing that their lives are forfeited if the Boxers get in, will certainly be faithful even if they are not very useful. By the way, I have not brought your clothes back. I came up in a suit of my own under my disguise, but I was afraid of carrying a bundle. They will come up, then, washed and ironed, when all this is over.”
Sandwich laughed. “All right, Bateman! I sha?n?t be able to get much washing done now, and shall hail the arrival of a clean suit when – that is a very vague word —when they come up.”
There was a good deal of excuse to be made for the coolies and servants. They were almost all drawn from the population of Pekin, and their families, according to the Chinese law, would assuredly suffer were they to remain at the Legation. This would account for the difference between their conduct and that of the native servants in the Indian Mutiny, for these, in the great majority of cases, remained true to their masters.