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Chapter 5 — INTERLUDE
3. A Shore Job

On my voyage back to China I had much to think about.

My future was still quite uncertain. I had prepared myself for a career in a new Chinese navy, but I had no great faith in it materializing nor of it being anything specially desirable.

I had refused a splendid opportunity for myself in our own navy on account of my deafness, and the same reason made the Customs Indoor Staff, to which I was now nominally appointed, almost equally unsuitable. The uncertainty was trying, but I knew I was a lucky person. The rut of those conditions which were normal for a mere sailor-man had been left by me; and leaving that rut was the first step to getting on. I had no fine deeds to my credit in the war, but I had come through with a clean bill of health as regards my reputation, and that was an asset of very real value. But the greatest asset was the earning of self-confidence. I had been in stress and strain; I had doubted and I had feared, yet I had kept my end up sufficiently well to make me consider I had stood the test; and it was a very comfortable feeling.

It must, I think, have been on reaching Shanghai that I got the news of the looting of the Naval Fund (1) by the Empress Dowager for the purpose of embellishing her palaces; so my chance was finished in that direction. I reported to the Commissioner as a Fourth Assistant B, and wondered whether something else might not turn up for me. It did, for Captain Bisbee, the Coast Inspector, wished to see me. I had served as his amanuensis on board the Pingching when his eyes were bad and he was on an inspection tour. ...


... He now told me of a problem in his duties which had so far defied solution. At the beginning of the war the Nanking Admiral had mined the narrow channels through the Tsungming Flats in the North Channel entrance to the Yangtsze. The Japanese had not been near the mine field; but the big Chinese trading junks, though duly warned, had, Chinese-like, declined to be turned from their usual ways. So seventeen of them were blown up with great loss of life and valuable cargo. One can imagine the satisfaction of the Nanking Admiral at this clear evidence that his mines were not filled with coal dust, as the Shanghai foreign papers had declared; but now the trouble was that these wrecks, with the five-knot current swirling round them, had entirely changed the channels and the banks; so that no one knew where the mines were moored, for they had not been fixed relatively to permanent marks on the distant shore and islands. What was immediately worse was the breaking adrift of some of them and their appearance in the South Channel among the stream of foreign shipping.
1 — This fund of ten million taels was raised by the issue of 8% bonds, which had the curiously appropriate name of ' Confidence.' No interest was ever paid, and the capital was used as stated.

The duty of dealing with this matter lay plainly with the Nanking Admiral, but from him there was a frank admission of inability. The Customs would not risk their vessels on the work, and besides they had no one with any knowledge of the business. What was needed was some one who would help the Nanking Admiral. Could I and would I undertake this task?

I realized at once that this was no matter of sweeping a known mine field; it was one of sweeping the entire North Channel into any part of which mines might have drifted; and the area concerned was some fifty square miles. By what means it could be done was another matter; but, of course, I undertook the job. Nothing could have better suited me just then — another opportunity thrown at me, and this time one I could take advantage of.

The problem was one of great interest, if only by reason of the limited means at my disposal. I was given an old wooden corvette — the Pow Ming, a former flagship — in which I occupied the Admiral's huge quarters. The Captain was satisfactorily under my direction; the dozen or so of Lieutenants were college trained, but had forgotten most of the mere academic stuff they had learnt there. Then by a great stroke of luck I got an ex-North Sea trawler, which by a variety of commercial vicissitudes had fetched up at Shanghai, where she had been purchased by the Nanking Government and re-named the Pootoo. Powerful and handy, nicely bare and sheer, she was eminently adapted to my purposes. The Pow Ming was to be headquarters for myself and staff; the Pootoo was to be the tool with which I worked. I boarded her at Woosung with my gear — it included a large blackboard which I had found some difficulty in buying — and she took me to the Pow Ming, anchored in the North Channel, and there I settled down.

North Sea Trawler ± 1895

... For a month I lectured to the officers on angles and nothing else — of good angles and bad ones, of sextants to measure them, of station-pointers to plot them, of double-angle fixes and their peculiar ways. I made them use those instruments — to ` sling 'em about ' as the saying went. We practised in the Pootoo under way. Two officers with sextants, another with a stationpointer on the survey board. ` Fix ! ' — Up went the sextants to their eyes; then the angles are read and uttered, transferred to the station-pointer, that instrument slipped about a bit, and then the pencil point marking our position. Ten seconds to do this. It is much too slow. It must be done in five or six; for I shall have to tow and drop successively a dozen dragboats in a straight line across a rapid tideway and in an assigned position. My naval training had not included mine-sweeping, but in any case the method here would have to be original, both on account of limitation of means and the existence of special ones. For there were a number of local craft called dragboats; the name, perhaps the boats themselves, originated in the frequent loss of anchors among the foreign sailing fleet in former times. They were long, low freeboarded, single-masted craft — a lofty mast with a lofty rail with its manyended sheet. They carried lee boards, they sailed like witches, and their crews were real boatmen and expert at dragging in a tideway — a pair in company.

When we really got to work it was quite a pretty show — technically and otherwise. Twelve boats in tow with slips to a common tow-rope — a signalman on each. On the Pootoo the three officers are fixing; I steer to reach the desired starting place and at such an angle with the tide that, with our speed, we cross it at right angles. We reach the spot; our siren makes a signal and the first junk slips the towrope; the others slip automatically in succession at the right distance. So there across the current lie these twelve boats in a straight line forming a single sweep half a mile in width — a sweep worked by the tide alone. In a spring tide they would cover five miles of ground or so, in a neap tide only two. If a pair of boats hooked anything, they signalled; all boats then anchored; one of that pair disconnected from the line; her place was taken by a spare boat and the drag went on. Then at slack water a diver went down and reported what was found, usually a snag of sorts, but occasionally a mine or a mine's anchor.

By the time I had swept that fifty square miles of estuary bottom — with the necessary overlapping it was some ninety miles — and picked up all there was, which was not much, and come to the conclusion that the entrance was now safe for shipping, I was very tired of the work. From the beginning to the end it took six months to do. But those six months were not all dull. There was, for example, the trouble on the Pootoo.

The men — especially the stokers — were leaving when they got the chance. The laodah, when I asked him what was up, slowly shook his head and walked away. The Pow Ming officers would not tell me, but they agreed that there was trouble — serious trouble that might make the Pootoo useless.

Now the leading spirit on that craft was not the laodah but the engineer. He was a little fellow with a stutter, bright twinkling eyes and a pleasant manner. So I went to him. ` Have got trouble this side; have ask plenty man what thing b'long; no man wanchee talkee my; so fashion b'long fool-pidgin; s'pose something no proper, much more better I savee; so just now I askee you what thing b'long? ' The little man thought a bit, his usually humorous face overclouded now with seriousness. ` Master, I talkee you true. This ship got devilo; no common devilo; this one b'long foreign; have got one long piecee white beard; any night any man no can sleep; engine room have got ping-pong, ping-pong on the anvil all night long; b'long devilo with his hammer. Plenty time have see. Two night ago I drunk plenty samshu, so no too muchee fear; I go engine room and ask devilo what for makee so much bobbery; then he makee all same fish in water, all same swim in air and go in ash pit; furnace door b'long open; I see he come between the fire bars, all same smoke, and go up funnel. I no savvy how he do so fashion.'

How I persuaded the crew that this apparition, though doubtless a nuisance, was quite harmless does not matter. I heard no more about it. But the interesting point was that the boat had been brought out by old Cunningham — a Scotch engineer with a long white beard; he had left her, I believe, at Hongkong. I had good evidence that the crew had never heard of him, and that when that wraith of his played with the anvil and slithered up between the fire bars, he was alive and going strong at Singapore.

There was a surveying beacon in the neighbourhood — a long pole surmounted by two wicker balls — that I had been told was always falling down without the reason for it being known; and now, when I needed it for my work, it disappeared one morning. So I sent a party to re-erect it and instructed the officer in charge to try to solve the mystery.

The story of the villagers, which he brought back, was this:-
Ever since that beacon was erected we have suffered from misfortunes. Our children have died, our crops have failed, and we have lost our cattle; and so from time to time we hauled the beacon down, because of what the fêng-shui experts told us. We have not told those Customs cruiser officers about it because they would get us into trouble if they knew, and being foreigners they could never understand our reasons; but now we are very glad to have the chance to tell you, and we hope and beg that you will have the situation remedied.

The facts are these:
— Immediately to the westward of our village is the boundary of two territories. The one within which our village lies is dominated by a dragon, and the other by a tiger. Now some years ago the dragon was mutilated in an accident, which grieved him sorely and made his temper very bad; but it was not the tiger's fault, so the two beasts remained in some degree of friendship, and the village prospered. It prospered until the beacon was erected, and then immediately began our trouble. So we had the fêng-shui experts in to trace the cause, and they said it was quite obvious.

It was because the beacon lay within the tiger's land. The dragon was eaten up with jealousy about it, and in his rage ramped and roared and clawed about the boundary that he could not pass. He was tantalized beyond endurance by that beacon and its fittings just beyond his reach. ' Why, oh why, should the tiger have that beacon when he has no need for it, while I who need it badly cannot get it. It is most unfair, and I will give no one any peace until it is handed over.' That, said the fêng-shui men, is the cause of all the trouble. Get the cruiser people to shift the beacon to the eastward — six feet or so will do — and you will find your troubles ended !

I sent, of course, the party back at once to make the change.

A year or so passed by before I landed at that village; and then I was received with smiles and the story of their renewed prosperity.

My work in the North Channel was finished; my report handed in; a Notice to Mariners re-opening the channel had been advertised; then one day Bisbee tested the degree of my deafness. When he had finished he made to me an astounding announcement. It was necessary he should have an understudy as Coast Inspector; he wished to go on leave within a year or so; Sir Robert Hart had left it to his discretion as to whether my deafness debarred me from the post; he decided that it did not; he would, therefore, at once recommend me for appointment as Deputy Coast Inspector. And thus at the age of thirty-one I left sea life and found my niche on shore.