Nothing of interest occurred during the day and a half that elapsed before the departure of the despatch-boat. Punctual enough as to time she steamed out of the harbour under cover of night, with the Chinese agent and myself on board. Misfortunes are well known never to come singly, and so it was in my case. The morning after our departure was very foggy, and towards noon we had to slow down to less than half speed. Suddenly, without a moment’s warning, a Japanese gunboat loomed through the dun vapour close on the port bow. With their ridiculous fondness for showing it on all occasions, in season and out, the Celestials had their flag flaunting on a staff in the stern. The Japanese on the gunboat perceived it, for without troubling to hail she opened on us with the machine-guns in her tops. A storm of balls swept the deck, and half of those upon it fell dead or wounded. One of the bullets cut off the peak of my cap with mechanical neatness, leaving the rest of the article on my head, though turned quite round, back to front. Before anything could be done to increase our speed, a quick-firing gun plumped several heavy shot through us. The machinery was damaged, we swung round helplessly, and were evidently fast sinking. We had two boats of no great size; one of them was knocked to splinters by the shot; the other we lowered as fast as we could. As many as it would hold got into it, the others jumped into the water, and within half a minute afterwards our vessel went down, and the woe-begone survivors of the sudden catastrophe found themselves prisoners on the deck of her destroyer.
She was the Itsuku gunboat of about five hundred tons, on a cruise of observation in the Gulf, along with two or three consorts, whom she had lost in the fog. There was not a soul on board who could speak a word of English, but by a few Chinese was sufficiently understood, and a gunnery officer could speak tolerable French, a knowledge of which tongue I shall probably be recollected to have mentioned as being the major portion of the inadequate exchange for my eighty thousand pounds. They informed us that they had taken us for a torpedo boat, and seeing the Chinese flag had no hesitation in opening fire on so dangerous a neighbour, as they deemed us. They seemed very scantily pleased when told our real character, and learnt that their precipitancy had perhaps lost them a little promotion, or at least honourable mention, as capturers of important despatches, as I understand them to have been.
I remained on board this vessel for more than a month. The Chinese, of course, were prisoners of war, but there was no ground for detaining me as such. I related how I had been left behind by the Columbia at Port Arthur, without, of course, giving any hint that she had been engaged in supplying China with war material. I thought this would satisfy my captors, but I was not long in finding out that they entertained their own ideas as to my character, for