Chapter 17 | We Lose Our Prisoners | Blue Jackets

Chapter Seventeen.

“Here he is,” cried Barkins, who was resting his leg; while Smith was sitting by the open window so as to catch all the air he could. “Got your promotion?”

“Got my what?” I cried.

“Promotion. I never saw such favouritism. Always being sent for to the skipper’s cabin. I wonder Reardon stands it.”

“Don’t talk nonsense,” I cried. “Phew, isn’t it hot?”

“Yes, for us. Regular prisoners, while you have all the fun—”

“Of being roasted, and then stoned by the Chinese.”

“That’s right,” said Smith sulkily, “make as little as you can of it. Did the skipper consult you about our next movement?”

“He gave me a good bullying for not having the boat ready when he wanted to come on board.”

“Was that why you went in the cabin?” cried Barkins.

“Of course.”

“Oh then, if that’s the case, we’ll let you off. Eh, Blacksmith?”

“Well, I suppose so.”

“Let me off what?”

“We had been discussing the matter,” said Barkins, “Smithy and I, and come to the conclusion that as you were such a swell you were too good for us, and we were going to expel you; but, under the circumstances, I think we’ll let you off this time. Oh!”

“What’s the matter?”

“My leg! There’s that horrible tingling and aching again. I’m sure that knife was poisoned.”

“Hi! look here,” cried Smith just then; “here are two big row-boats coming out to us.”

We both made for the window, and there, in the bright sunshine, were two large barges, gay with gilding and showy ensigns, coming pretty swiftly in our direction, while, as they drew nearer, we could see that their occupants were in brilliant costumes and fully-armed, swords and spears flashing, and gold and silver embroidery lending their glow to the general effect.

“Why, those must be all the big pots of the city,” said Barkins—“these in the first boat.”

“And the second is full of soldiers.”

“I know,” I cried; “they’re coming to fetch the prisoners. I must go on deck.”

“And we shall see nothing of the fun again,” cried Barkins.

“Why not?” I said; “I’ll help you on deck.”

“Come on, then,” cried Barkins eagerly. “Oh, hang this wound!”

He caught hold of my shoulder, and with a little pulling and hauling I got him on deck, hurting him a good deal, I’m afraid, but he bore it like a martyr, till I had him seated upon a place near the starboard gangway.

I then turned to go and help up Smith, but found he had called in the aid of a couple of the sailors, and the next minute he too was seated by Barkins.

Meanwhile the drum had called the men to quarters, the officers were on deck in uniform, and the marines drawn-up to form a guard of honour, sufficiently smart and warlike, with the white-ducked Jacks, and big guns bright as hands could make them, to impress the barbaric party coming on board.

The boats were rowing very near now, and the captain came on deck, to stand under the awning which had been stretched out since the Teaser had been restored to order. Then the gangway was opened, the steps were lowered, and half-a-dozen Jacks descended to help the visitors to mount, while the marines stood at attention.

The boatmen managed to fall foul of the side, and nearly upset the barge, but our lads saved them from that disaster; and the mandarin and his suite, who had come off, soon mounted to the deck, to stand haughtily returning the salutes of the officers.

Then there was an awkward pause, for our officers only knew a few words of Chinese, while the mandarin’s party, although they had had Englishmen in their city for nearly a hundred years, could not speak a word of our tongue, and they had brought no interpreter.

There was an awkward pause, broken by a high-pitched voice just outside the gorgeous-looking throng.

“You wantee Ching?”

“Yes,” cried the captain; “tell these gentlemen that they are heartily welcome on board Her Majesty’s ship.”

Ching nodded, and, bowing down humbly, gazed at the white deck, and squeaked out a long speech to the contemptuous-looking Chinese official, who stood in front of his attendants, each in his long, stiff, embroidered silk dressing-gown; and what seemed the most comically effeminate was that the gorgeous officers, with rat-tail moustachios and armed with monstrous swords, each carried a fan, which he used constantly.

“He’s putting an awful lot of fat in the captain’s speech,” whispered Barkins, who was just behind me.

Then the chief of the party said a few words, without condescending to notice the interpreter, and Ching backed away, to turn to the captain.

“His most noble excellency the big-buttoned mandalin has come on board the gleat fine ship with his genelals, and blavest of the blave, to fetch the most wicked and double-bad plisoners whom the gleat sea captain of the foleign devils—”

“Eh! what?” said Captain Thwaites. “Did he say that?”

“Yes. Come fetch allee bad bad plisoners velly much all together.”

“Very well,” said the captain; “tell him he can have them, and welcome.”

Ching approached the mandarin again, in his former humble form, and made another long speech; after which the great official turned to one of his attendants and said something; this gorgeous being turned and spoke to another; and he went to the gangway and stood fanning himself as he squeaked out something to the soldiers in the second boat.

Then an order was given, and in a curious shambling way about forty soldiers came up the steps, and ranged themselves in a double row, something after the fashion of our drilling.

I was watching these men with their heavy swords and clumsy spears, when there was a clanking sound, and a dozen more men came on deck with quite a load of heavy chains, which at a word of command they banged down with a crash upon the deck, and then stood waiting.

At the same moment the captain gave an order, and our marine officer marched off with a strong detachment of his men right forward; and after a pause, during which Englishmen and Chinamen stood staring at each other and the grandees used their fans, the first prisoner was brought forward by a couple of marines, strolling along in a heavy, careless way till he was abreast of his fellow-countrymen.

Then at a word from an officer four soldiers seized the unfortunate wretch and threw him heavily down upon his face; two knelt upon him, and in a trice heavy chains were fitted to his legs and wrists, the latter being dragged behind his back. Then, by one consent, the four Chinamen leaped up, and waited for the prisoner to follow their example, but he lay still.

“If he has any gumption he won’t move,” whispered Barkins, who like myself was an interested spectator.

Mr Reardon walked to us.

“Silence, young gentlemen,” he said sternly. “Let us show these barbarians what dishipline is.—Brute!”

This last applied to one of the Chinamen, who said something to the prisoner, who merely wagged his tail, and then received a tremendous kick in the ribs.

He sprang up then like a wild-beast, but he was seized by as many as could get a grip of him, bundled to the gangway, and almost thrown down into the barge, where other men seized him and dragged him forward to where some spearmen stood ready on guard.

By this time another had been thrown down and chained. He made no scruple about rising and walking to the side to be bundled down.

Another followed, and another, the grandees hardly glancing at what was going on, but standing coolly indifferent and fanning away, now and then making some remark about the ship, the guns, or the crew.

Seven had been chained, and the eighth was brought forward by two marines, seized, thrown down, and fettered. Then, instead of allowing himself to be bundled into the boat as apathetically as the others, he gazed fiercely to right and left, and I saw that something was coming.

So did the indifferent-looking Chinese, for one of the most gorgeously dressed of the party whipped out a heavy curved sword, whose blade was broader at the end than near the hilt, and made for him; but, active as a cat, and in spite of the weight of his chains, the man made a series of bounds, knocked over two of the soldiers, and leaped at the gangway behind them, reached the top, and fell more than jumped over, to go down into the water with a heavy splash.

Half-a-dozen of the men leaped on to the rail, and stood looking down, before the captain could give an order; while a few words were shouted from the barge below.

The officer returned his sword, and began fanning himself again; the soldiers seized the next prisoner and began chaining him, but no one stirred to save the man overboard, and we all grasped the reason why,—twenty pounds of iron fetters took him to the bottom like a stone.

I saw the captain frown as he said something to Mr Reardon, who merely shook his head.

“Ain’t they going to lower a boat, sir?” I whispered to Mr Brooke.

“We could do no good,” he said. “There are twenty fathoms of water out there, Herrick, and the man could not rise.”

The incident did not seem to discompose the Chinese, who disposed of the next prisoner. And then I saw that the marines had charge of another, who suddenly made an attempt to escape, and our men only having one hand, at liberty, the other holding a rifle, he would have succeeded, had not six or seven of the soldiers rushed at and seized him, dragging him to the lessening heap of chains, when he suddenly threw up his hands and dropped upon his knees, throwing them off their guard by making believe to resign himself to his fate.

But before the first fetter could be dragged to where he knelt, he sprang up with the fire of fury in his eyes, and made a rush at the mandarin, seized him, and it would have gone ill with his gaudy costume, had not a couple of the officers dragged out their swords.

What followed took only a moment or two. I saw the blades flash, heard a sickening sound, and saw the prisoner stagger away, while the second of the two officers followed him, delivering chop after chop with his heavy blade, till the unfortunate wretch dropped upon the deck, where he was at once seized and pitched overboard without the slightest compunction.

“Here, interpreter, tell the chief I cannot have my deck turned into a butcher’s shamble like this,” cried the captain angrily.

Ching shuffled forward, and advanced towards the mandarin, spoke at length; the mandarin replied with a haughty smile, and Ching backed away again.

“Gleat big-button mandalin say he velly much ’blige captain big fine ship, and he allee light, no hurtee ’tall by killee badee bad men.”

“Bah!” ejaculated the captain, turning angrily away; and I saw Mr Reardon’s face grow fixed, as if carved in wood, in his efforts to keep from smiling.

The last of the prisoners had been brought out of confinement, thrown down, chained, and bundled into the barge, half the soldiers followed, orders were given, and the second barge pushed off, when the captain once more had recourse to Ching’s help.

“Ask the mandarin if he will come into the cabin and take a glass of wine.”

But this was declined, and Ching communicated the fact that the great man “would not eatee dlinkee, but wantee velly much see ship.”

He was taken round, the whole following keeping at his heels, and his officers and soldiers scowling fiercely, or looking about with supreme contempt, as they made a great display of their weapons, and acted generally as if they were condescending to look round, so as to be civil to the Western barbarians.

At last they went over the side, and the gorgeous barge was rowed away.

“Thank goodness, Reardon,” I heard the captain say; and directly after, as I was passing, Tom Jecks’ voice was heard in the midst of a group of the Jacks.

“Say, messmate,” he said, “fancy, stripped and fists only, how many Chinese could you polish off?”

“Dunno,” said a voice, which I knew to be that of Billy Wakes, a big manly-looking young Plymouth fellow. “’Course I could do one, and I think I could doctor two on ’em; I’d have a try at three; and I’m blest if I’d run away from four. That is about as fair as I can put it, messmate.”

I was helping Barkins to the companion-way, and Smith was walking very slowly by us. But as we heard this we stopped to laugh, just as Mr Brooke came up and asked what amused us. We told him, and he laughed too.

“That means one of our fellows would try at four Chinamen. He’s too modest. Four to one, lads! why, if it came to real righting, ten of them would follow me against a hundred of the enemy. Ten to one.—News for you.”

“News, sir; what?” I said.

“We sail again directly. There is another gang at work south, and we have a hint of the whereabouts of their nest.”