Chapter 25 | The Entertainment | Blue Jackets

Chapter Twenty Five.

I felt as it were a sudden jar run through me when I heard Ching’s words. It was as if I had been awakened by a sudden revelation. This, then, was the grand show he had contrived for us as a treat! It was all clear enough: our officers had been invited to the execution of the pirates we had taken, and conceiving, with all a Chinaman’s indifference to death, that we three lads, who had been present at their capture, would consider it as a great treat to be witnesses of the punishment awarded by the Government, Ching had contrived to get permission for us to be present.

I glanced at the Tanner, who had grasped the situation, and was screwing his face up so as to look perfectly unconcerned; but it was a dismal failure, for I could see a peculiar twitching going on at the corners of his eyes, and he passed his tongue rapidly over his lips and went through the action of swallowing as if his mouth and throat were dry.

I next looked at Smithy, whose eyes showed more white than usual, and whose complexion was of a sickly-green, just as I had seen it during some very rough weather we had going down the Channel on first starting for this voyage.

How I looked I have only Barkins’ word for, and he told me afterwards that I seemed as if I was waiting for my turn to suffer with the pirates.

After the sharp glance I gave at my fellows neither of us stirred, but sat there as if petrified. I was horror-stricken, and there was a strong impulse upon me to jump up and run out, but shame and the dread of being considered cowardly kept me in my place. In fact, as after-confessions made clear, we were absolutely stunned, and I don’t think we could have stirred had we made up our minds to go.

Then I felt dizzy, and the brilliant group of officials and military magnates and judges opposite to where we sat grew blurred and strange-looking in the bright sunshine.

At last I felt as if I must argue out the question, and with my teeth set firm, and my eyes fixed upon the sandy ground of the enclosure, some such thoughts as these ran through my brain— “It is only just that these men should suffer for their horrible crimes, for they are more dangerous than venomous serpents, and I suppose that Captain Thwaites and Lieutenant Reardon are obliged to come as a kind of duty; but we three came under the idea that we were to see some kind of exhibition, and old Ching did it out of kindness, not knowing of what kind of stuff we were made. I shan’t stop.”

There I paused to fight with other ideas.

“Tanner and Blacksmith will laugh at me and think I am a coward. Well, let them,” I said to myself at last. “It isn’t cowardice not to wish to see such a horror as this. I didn’t feel cowardly when they were shooting at us down in the creek, and it would be far more cowardly to sit here against my will without speaking. I will tell them I want to go.”

I should think that every lad of the age I then was, will pretty well understand my feelings, and what a bitter thing it was to turn and confess what they would jeer at and call “funk.” It was hard work indeed.

“I don’t care,” I muttered. “I know they’ll protest and say they don’t want to come, but be very glad to come away all the time. I will speak.”

Just then that horrible Chinaman turned to me with his round fat face, all smiling and delighted.

“You velly glad you come?” he said. “You feel velly happy?”

My mind was made up at this, and I spoke out.

“No,” I said in a husky whisper. “I didn’t know we had come to see this. I shall go.”

“What?” said Barkins, with a forced laugh. “Look here, Blacksmith, he’s showing the white feather.”

“Ho! ho!” laughed Smith. “Come, Gnat, I thought you had a little more spirit in you. Serve the beggars right.”

“Yes, I know that,” I said firmly enough now, as I looked at their faces, which, in spite of the masks they had assumed, looked ghastly; “and I daresay I haven’t pluck enough to sit it out. But I don’t care for your grins; I’m not ashamed to say that I shall go.”

“Oh, well, if you feel that it would upset you,” said Barkins, in a tone of voice full of protest, “I suppose that we had better see you off, and go somewhere else.”

“Poof!” ejaculated Smith in a low tone. “Look at him, Gnat; he’s in just as much of a stew as you are. Well, it’s too bad of you both, but if you must go, why, I suppose we must.”

“You beggar!” snarled Barkins angrily. “Why, you’re worse than I am. Look at him, Gnat! There, I will own it. I felt sick as soon as I knew what was going to happen, but I won’t be such a bumptious, bragging sneak as he is. Look at his face. It’s green and yellow. He wants to go worse than we do.”

Smith did not seem to be listening, for his starting eyes were fixed upon the far right-hand gate, over which there was a kind of pagoda, and he rose from his seat.

“Come on at once,” he whispered, “they’re going to begin.”

“Confessed!” whispered Barkins, pinching my knee. “Come on then quick, Gnat, old man; it’s too horrid.”

We all rose together, and were in the act of turning when a low hoarse murmur rose from behind, and we saw that a crowd of angry faces were gazing at us, and that they were nearly all armed men.

But before we had recovered from our surprise, Ching had caught my arm and pressed me to my seat.

“No go now,” he whispered, with a look of alarm in his face, and he leaned over me and dragged my companions down in turn. “No can go now. Allee gate fasten. Makee blave velly angly and dlaw sword; fightee fightee. Ching velly solly. Must stop now.”

There was a low hissing noise all about us, and threatening looks, while a fierce man in embroidered silk said something in his own tongue to Ching, who answered humbly, and then tamed to us and whispered—

“Small-button mandalin say make big-button peacock-feather mandalin velly angly. You no sit still. Sh! sh!”

“We must sit it out, boys,” I said, with a shudder; “but we need not look.”

My words were quite correct to a certain extent, but as my companions, who now looked more ghastly than ever, sank back in their seats, I felt compelled to gaze across to where I could now see a red table exactly facing me. Then a movement to the right caught my attention, and through the far gateway, and lowering it a little as he passed under the archway, rode an officer with a yellow silk banner, upon which were large black Chinese characters. Behind him came some more showily-dressed officials; and then, in a kind of sedan chair, one whom I at once saw to be the chief mandarin, for whom we had been waiting.

He was carried across to the front, where he alighted and walked slowly across to the red table, followed by sword, spear, and matchlock men, who, as he took his place at the table, ranged themselves on either side facing us, and completing a spectacle that, seen there in the bright light, strongly suggested the opening of some grand pantomime.

I remember thinking this, and then shuddering at the horrible thought, and at the same time I began wondering at the intense interest I could not help taking in what was going on.

Two more grandees in chairs of state followed, and then there was a pause. I could see that our officers were politely saluted, and that care was taken that no one should be in front of them. And now came the more exciting part of the terrible exhibition.

Suddenly there was the loud booming of a gong, and the head of an escort of spearmen marched through the gateway, followed by a group of men in twos, each pair bearing a long bamboo pole, from which, hanging in each case like a scale, was a large basket, and heavily chained in each basket was a man, whom we knew at once to be one of the pirates we had captured, without Ching whispering to us—

“Velly bad men, killee evelybody. They killee now.”

My eyes would not close. They were fascinated by the horrible procession; and I now saw, just in front of the bearers, a tall-looking bare-headed man carrying a large bright sword, curved in the fashion we see in old pictures of the Turkish scimitar, a blade which increases in width from the hilt nearly to the end, where it is suddenly cut off diagonally to form a sharp point.

Behind this man marched five more, the procession moving right to the front between us and the brilliant party whose centre was the principal mandarin.

I now saw, too, that every one of the miserable culprits was ticketed or labelled, a bamboo upon which a piece of paper was stuck being attached to his neck and head.

A low murmur ran round among the spectators, as, at a signal from the man with the great sword, who I saw now must be the executioner, the bearers stopped, and with a jerk threw the poles off their shoulders into their hands, bumped the baskets heavily down upon the ground, and shot the malefactors out as unceremoniously as if they had been so much earth.

I heard Barkins draw a deep breath, and saw Smith leaning forward and gazing wildly at the scene, while I felt my heart go throb throb heavily, and found myself wishing that I had not shared in the capture of the wretched men.

The chief mandarin then turned to the officer on horseback, who carried the imperial yellow flag, said a few words in a low tone, and he in turn pushed his horse a little forward to where the executioner was waiting, and evidently conveyed the mandarin’s orders.

Then suddenly the pirates, as if moved by one consent, struggled to their feet and began shouting.

Ching placed his lips close to my ear—

“Say, please no choppee off head. Velly bad men, killee lot always; velly bad.”

And now I felt that the time had come to close my eyes, but they remained fixed. I could not avert my gaze from a scene which was made more horrible by a struggle which took place between the first pirate of the long row in which they stood and the executioner.

The man shouted out some words angrily, and Ching interpreted them in my ear, his explanation being in company with a strange surging noise—

“Say he come back and killee him if he choppee off head. Oh, he velly bad man.”

But quickly, as if quite accustomed to the task, two of the executioner’s assistants rushed at the pirate; one of them forced him down into a kneeling position; they then seized his long tail, drew it over his head and hung back, thus holding the pirate’s neck outstretched; lastly, I saw the executioner draw back, the sword flashed, I heard a dull thud—the head fell, and the body rolled over on one side.

Before I could drag my eyes from the horror there was the same terrible sound again, and another head fell upon the ground, while, with a rapidity that was astounding, the assistants passed from one culprit to the other in the long row, the miserable wretches making not the slightest resistance, but kneeling patiently in the position in which they were thrust, while whish, whish, whish, the executioner lopped off their heads at one blow.

“Allee done,” said Ching. “Execution man have velly much plactice.”

He said this to me, but I made no reply, for the whole place seemed to be going round and round.

“You thinkee they all come back again and have junk? Go kill shoot evelybody, pilate ghost-man?”

“No,” I said hoarsely; “can we go now?”

“Velly soon. Gleat clowd all along gate. Lookee, Mis’ Tanner go s’eep.”

These words roused me, and I turned to Barkins, who was lying back with his eyes nearly closed and looking ghastly, while Smith sat staring straight before him, with his hands grasping the seat on either side, in a stiff, awkward position.

“Here, Smithy,” I said, “quick, Tanner has fainted;” but he took no notice, and I whispered to him angrily—

“Get up. It’s all over now. Come and help me. Don’t let these horrible people see Tanner like this.”

He turned to me then, and let his eyes fall on our messmate.

“Can you get me a drink of water, Ching?” he murmured.

“Yes, d’leckly; wait lit’ bit. Po’ Mr Barki’ Tanner leg velly bad, makee sick. You’ alm velly bad still?”

“Very bad; it throbs,” murmured Smith.

“Ah, yes! Wait lit’ bit and no clowd. Ching take you have cup flesh tea, and quite well d’leckly. You not likee execution?”

I shook my head.

“Velly good job cut allee head off. No go killee killee, burn ship no more.”

“We’re not used to seeing such things,” I said weakly, as I supported Barkins to keep him from slipping to the ground.

“You no go see execution when Queen Victolia cut off bad men’s head?”

I shook my head.

“Ah, I see,” said Ching. “Me tink you have velly gleat tleat. But I see, not used to see. Velly blave boy, not mind littlee bit next time.”

“What’s the matter? Don’t, doctor. It’s getting well now.”

It was Barkins who spoke, and his hands went suddenly to his injured leg, and held it, as he bent over towards it and rocked himself to and fro.

“Throbs and burns,” he said, drawing in his breath as if in pain. “I—I—”

He looked round wildly.

“I remember now,” he said faintly. “Don’t laugh at me, you chaps. I turned sick as a dog as soon as that butchering was over. I never felt like this over the fighting. I say, Gnat, did I faint right away?”

“Yes, dead!” I said; “I was nearly as bad.”

“Enough to make you. But oh, my leg, how it does sting! I say, isn’t it queer that it should come on now? Did the fainting do it?”

“I dunno,” said Smith hastily, “but my arm aches horribly. I say, do let’s get away from here, or I shall be obliged to look over yonder again.”

“Yes, I’m all right again now,” said Barkins quietly. “Let’s get away. I say, lads, it’s of no use to be humbugs; we did all feel precious bad, eh?”

We looked at each other dolefully.

“Yes, let’s get away,” I said. “I thought we were coming out for a jolly day.”

Barkins shuddered and now stood up.

“Yes,” he said; “I hope the skipper liked it. Can you see him now?”

“Skipper? Cap’n?” said Ching, whose ears were always sharp enough to catch our words. “Gone along, Mr Leardon. Make gland plocession all away back to palace. You go sail, soon catch more pilate.”

“I hope, if we do,” said Smith, “that we shall not bring back any prisoners.”

The enclosure was thinning fast now, as we walked toward the gateway by which we had entered, where a strong body of soldiers had been on guard over the barricades, in case of an attempt being made by the pirates’ friends to rescue them, and we saw plainly enough that had we wanted there would have been no getting away.

“You likee go in and see plison?” said Ching insinuatingly. “Plenty bad men lock up safe.”

“No, thank you,” I said eagerly. “Let’s get out of this, and go and have some tea.”

“Yes, plenty tea. Ching show way.”

The Chinese soldiers stared at us haughtily as we walked by, and I drew myself up, hoping that no one there had witnessed our weakness, for if they had I knew that they could not feel much respect for the blue-jackets who hunted down the scoundrels that infested their seas.

Both Barkins and Smith must have felt something after the fashion that I did, for they too drew themselves up, returned the haughty stares, and Barkins stopped short to look one truculent savage fellow over from head to foot, especially gazing at his weapons, and then, turning coolly to me, he said, with a nod in the man’s direction—

“Tidy sort of stuff to make soldiers off, Gnat, but too heavy.”

The man’s eyes flashed and his hand stole toward his sword hilt.

“’Tention!” roared Barkins with a fierce stamp, and though the order was new to the guard, he took it to be a military command and stepped back to remain stiff and motionless.

“Ha! that’s better,” cried Barkins, and he nodded and then passed on with us after Ching, whose eyes bespoke the agony of terror he felt.

“Come long quickee,” he whispered excitedly. “Very big blave that fellow. Killee—fightee man. You no ’flaid of him?”

“Afraid? No,” said Barkins shortly. “There, let’s have this tea.”

Ching glanced round once, and we were about to imitate his example, but he said excitedly—

“No, no, don’t lookee. Big blave talkee talkee soldier, and tink Inglis offlicer ’flaid. Walkee past.”

He led us as quickly as he could get us to go towards the tea-house he sought, and I must own that I was only too anxious about the Chinese guards to help feeling in a good deal of perturbation lest they should feel that they had been insulted, and follow us so as to take revenge. Hence I was glad enough to get within the tea-house’s hospitable walls, and sat there quite content to go on sipping the fragrant infusion for long enough.

I suppose we were there quite an hour and a half drinking tea, until we were satisfied, and then passing a look round to draw attention to our interpreter, who sat back with his eyes half closed, sipping away cupful after cupful, till Smith whispered to me that he thought he had kept correct account.

“How many do you think Ching has had?” he whispered.

“Don’t know; nearly a dozen?”

“Fifty-three, or thereabouts,” whispered Smith.

But I did not believe him, and I do not think he believed himself.

“Now, you likee go ’long see somethin’ else?” said Ching, when he had really drunk tea enough.

“Yes,” said Barkins, “I feel ready. What do you say to going to see the Teaser, lads?” he continued.

“I’m willing,” said Smith. “I want to lie down.”

“You ready, Gnat?”

“Oh yes,” I replied. “I don’t feel as if I could enjoy anything to-day.”

“Right, then. No, Ching; back on board ship.”

“You go velly soon? Now?”

“Yes, directly.”

Ching smiled—he had a habit of smiling at everything nearly, and we paid our reckoning and followed him down to the landing-place, to arrive there just in time to see the barge with the captain and his escort gliding rapidly away toward the ship.

“Too soon findee boat,” said Ching. “Tellee man come when sun go out of sight.”

“Yes, and that means two hours good,” said Barkins. “Look here, Ching, hire a boat cheap. Get a fellow with a sailing-boat, if you can.”

“Yes,” said the Chinaman, nodding his head in a satisfied way, “Good boat—velly nice boat—boat with velly big sail fly over water, eh?”

“Yes, that’s it,” said Barkins. “And look sharp, for there are a lot of low blackguardly-looking fellows coming up, and we don’t want another row.”

Barkins was quite right, for, as in our own seaports, there were plenty of roughs about, and whether in blue frocks and pith boots or British rags, the loafer is much the same. Ching saw at a glance that the sooner we were off the better, and hurried us a little way along the wharf till he saw a boat that seemed suitable.

“You all get in velly quick,” he said.

“But we must make a bargain with the man.”

“Plesently,” he replied, as we hurried in, and he ordered the man in charge to put off.

The man began to protest volubly, but Ching rose up, and with a fierce look rustled his new coat and sat down again, with the result that the man loosened the rope which held his boat to the side, and the swift tide began to bear us away directly, the man hoisting up a small matting-sail and then meekly thrusting an oar over, with which to steer.

“Why, what did you say to him, Ching?” I asked; and the interpreter smiled, and wrinkled up his eyes till he resembled a piece of old china on a chimney-piece.

“Ching say velly lit’ bit; only shake his new coat till common man see it silk. He feel velly much flighten all a same, as if big-button mandalin get in him boat.”

“And what shall we have to pay him?”

“P’laps nothing ’tall.”

“Oh, nonsense!” I said. “We must pay him the proper fare.”

“Velly well, pay him ploper money.”

I anticipated trouble, but when we got to the side and a dollar was handed to the man, his heavy round face lit up with pleasure, and he said something aloud.

“What does he say, Ching?” I asked.

“Say velly glad, and didn’t tink he get anything ’tall.”

We made the best of our way below, fully expecting that, if the captain and Mr Reardon saw us, they would take us to task for being at the execution, and ask; us how we dared to follow them there. But, as luck had it, they had been too much occupied by the horrible affair in progress, and our presence had escaped them. But it was a long while before I could get the scene out of my head or think of our trip ashore that day as anything but a horrible mistake.