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The Man in the Buffalo Hide by Louis Becke


Twelve years ago in a North Queensland town I was told the story of "The Man in the Buffalo Hide" by Ned D——. He (D——) was then a prosperous citizen, having made a small fortune by "striking it rich" on the Gilbert and Etheridge Rivers goldfields. Returning from the arid wastes of the Queensland back country to Sydney, he tired of leading an inactive life, and hearing that gold had been discovered on one of the Solomon Islands, he took passage thither in the Sydney whaling barque Costa Rica packet, and though he returned to Australia without discovering gold in the islands, he had kept one of the most interesting logs of a whaling cruise it has ever been my fortune to read. The master of the whaleship was Captain J.Y. Carpenter, a man who is well known and highly respected, not only in Sydney (where he now resides), but throughout the East Indies and China, where he had lived for over thirty years. And it was from Captain Carpenter who was one of the actors in this twice-told tragedy, that D——heard this story of Chinese vengeance. He (D——) related it to me in '88, and I wish I could write the tale as well and vividly as he told it. However, I wrote it out for him then and there. Much to our disgust the editor of the little journal to whom we sent the MS., considered it a fairy tale, and cut it down to some two or three hundred words. I mention these apparently unnecessary details merely that the reader may not think that the tale is fiction, for two years or so after, Captain Carpenter corroborated my friend's story.

It was after the Taeping rebellion had been stamped out in blood and fire by Gordon and his "Ever Victorious Army," and the Viceroy (Li Hung Chang) had taken up his quarters in Canton, and was secretly torturing and beheading those prisoners whom he had sworn to the English Government to spare.

Carpenter was in command of a Chinese Government despatch vessel—a side-wheeler—which was immediately under the Viceroy's orders. She was but lightly armed, but was very fast, as fast went in those days. His ship had been lying in the filthy river for about a week, when, one afternoon, a mandarin came off with a written order for him to get ready to proceed to sea at daylight on the following morning. Previous experience of his estimable and astute Chinese employers warned him not to ask the fat-faced, almond-eyed mandarin any questions as to the steamer's destination, or the duration of the voyage. He simply said that he would be ready at the appointed time.

At daylight another mandarin, named Kwang— one of much higher rank than his visitor of the previous day—came on board. He was attended by thirty of the most ruffianly-looking scoundrels—even for Chinamen—that the captain had ever seen. They were all well armed, and came off in a large, well-appointed boat, which, the mandarin intimated with a polite smile, was to be towed, if she was too heavy to be hoisted aboard. A couple of hands were put in her, and she was veered astern. Then the anchor was lifted, and the steamer started on her eighty miles trip down the river to the sea, the mandarin informing the captain that he would name the ship's destination as soon as they were clear of the land.

Most of Carpenter's officers were Europeans—Englishmen or Americans—and one or two of them who spoke Chinese, attempted to enter into conversation with the thirty braves, and endeavour to learn the object of the steamer's mission. Their inquiries were met either with a mocking jest or downright insult, and presently the mandarin, who hitherto had preserved a smiling and affable demeanour as he sat on the quarter-deck, turned to the captain with a sullen and ferocious aspect, and bade him remind his officers that they had no business to question the servants of the "high and excellent Viceroy."

But though neither Carpenter nor any of his officers could learn aught about this sudden mission, one of their servants, a Chinese who was deeply attached to his master, whispered tremblingly to him that the mandarin and the thirty braves were in quest of one of the Viceroy's most hated enemies—a noted leader of the Taepings who had escaped the bloodied hands of Li Hung Chang, and whose retreat had been betrayed to the cruel, merciless Li the previous day.

Once clear of the land, the mandarin, with a polite smile and many compliments to Carpenter on the skilful and expeditious manner in which he had navigated the steamer down the river, requested him to proceed to a certain point on the western side of the island of Formosa.

"When you are within twenty miles of the land, captain," he said suavely, "you will make the steamer stop, and my men and I will leave you in the boat. You must await our return, which may be on the following day, or the day after, or perhaps longer still. But whether I am absent one, or two, or six days, you must keep your ship in the position I indicate as nearly as possible. You must avoid observation from the shore, you must be watchful, diligent, and patient, and, when you see my boat returning, you must make your engines work quickly, and come towards us with all speed. High commendation and a great reward from the serene nobleness of our great Viceroy—who has already condescended to notice your honourable ability and great integrity in your profession—awaits you." Then with another smile and bow he went to his cabin.

As soon as the steamer reached the place indicated by the mandarin the engines were stopped. The boat, which was towing astern, was hauled alongside, and the thirty truculent "braves," with a Chinese pilot and the ever-smiling mandarin, got into her and pushed off for the shore. That they were all picked men, who could handle an oar as well as a rifle, was very evident from the manner in which they sent the big boat along towards the blue outline of the distant shore.

For two days Carpenter and his officers waited and watched, the steamer lying and rolling about upon a long swell, and under a hot and brazen sun. Then, about seven o'clock in the morning, as the sea haze lifted, a look-out on the foreyard hailed the deck and said the boat was in sight. The steamer's head was at once put towards her under a full head of steam, and in another hour the mandarin and his braves were alongside.

The mandarin clambered up on deck, his always-smiling face (which Carpenter and his officers had come to detest) now darkly exultant.

"You have done well, sir," he said to the captain; "the Viceroy himself, when my own miserable worthlessness abases itself before him, shall know how truly and cleverly you and your officers (who shall be honoured for countless ages in the future) have obeyed the behests which I have had the never-to-be-extinguished honour to convey from him to you. There is a prisoner in the boat—a prisoner who is to be tried before those high and merciful judges whose Heaven-sent authority your valorous commander of the Ever Victorious Army has upheld."

Carpenter, being a sailor man before all else, swallowed the mandarin's compliments for all they were worth, and I can imagine him giving a grumpy nod to the smiling minion of the Viceroy as he ordered "the prisoner" to be brought on deck, and the boat to be veered astern for towing.

The official interposed oilily. There was no need, he said, to tow the boat to Canton if she could not be hoisted on board, and was likely to impede the steamer's progress. Some of his braves could remain in her, and the insignia of the Viceroy which they wore would ensure both their and the boat's safety—no pirates would touch them.

The captain said that to tow such a heavy boat for such a long distance would certainly delay the steamer's arrival in Canton by at least six or eight hours. The mandarin smiled sweetly, and said that as speed was everything the most honourable navigator, whom he now had the privilege to address, and who was so soon to be distinguished by his mightiness the Viceroy, could at once let the boat which had conveyed his worthless self into the sunshine of his (the captain's) presence, go adrift.

At a sign from Kwang, six of his cutthroats clambered down the side into the boat, which was at once cast oft; the steamer was sent along under a full head of steam, and the captain was about to ascend the bridge when the mandarin stayed him, and requested that a meal should be at once prepared in the cabin for the prisoner, who, he said, was somewhat exhausted, for his capture was only effected after he had killed three and wounded half a dozen of "the braves." So courageous a man, he added softly, whatever his offence might be, must not be allowed to suffer the pangs of hunger and thirst.

Carpenter gave the necessary order to the steward with a sensation of pleasure, feeling that he had done the suave and gentle-voiced Kwang an injustice in imagining him to be like most Chinese officials—utterly indifferent and callous to human suffering. Then he stepped along the deck towards the bridge just as two of the braves lifted the prisoner to his feet, which a third had freed from a thong of hide, bound so tightly around them that it had literally cut into the flesh. His hands were tied in the same manner, and round his neck was an iron collar, with a chain about six feet in length which was secured at the end to another band around the waist of one of the "braves."

As the prisoner stood erect, Carpenter saw that he was a man of herculean proportions and over six feet three or four inches in height. His arms and naked chest were cut, bleeding and bruised, and a bamboo gag was in his mouth; but what at once attracted the captain's attention and sympathy was the man's face.

So calm, steadfast, and serene were his clear, undaunted eyes; so proud, lofty, and contemptuous and yet so dignified his bearing, as he glanced at his guards when they bade him walk, that Carpenter, drawing back a little, raised his hand in salute.

In an instant the deep, dark eyes lit up, and the tortured, distorted mouth would have smiled had it not been for the cruel gag. But twice he bent his head, and his eyes did that which was denied to his lips.

Captain Carpenter was deeply moved. The man's heroic fortitude, his noble bearing under such physical suffering, the tender, woman-like resignation in the eyes which could yet smile into his, affected him so strongly that he could not help asking one of the "braves" the prisoner's name.

An insolent, threatening gesture was the only answer. But the prisoner had heard, and bent his head in acknowledgment. When he raised it again and saw that Carpenter had now taken off his cap, tears trickled down his cheeks. In another moment he was hurried along the deck into the cabin, and half a dozen "braves" stood guard at the door to prevent intrusion, whilst the gag was removed, and the victim of the Viceroy's vengeance was urged to eat. Whether he did so or not was never known, for half an hour afterwards he was removed to one of the state-rooms, where he was closely guarded by Kwang's cutthroats. When he was next seen by Carpenter and the officers of the steamer the gag was again in his mouth, but the calm, resolute eyes met theirs as it trying to tell them that the heroic soul within the tortured body knew no fear, and felt and appreciated their sympathy.

On the afternoon of the third day after leaving Formosa the steamer ploughed her way up the muddy waters of the river, and came to an anchor off the city at a place which was within half a mile of the Viceroy's residence. The mandarin requested the captain to fire three guns, and hoist the Chinese flag at both the fore and main peaks.

This signal was, so Kwang condescended to say, to inform His Illustriousness the Ever-Merciful Viceroy that he, Kwang, his crawling dependent, guided by Carpenter's high intelligence, and supreme and honoured skill as a navigator, had achieved the object which His Illustriousness desired.

The captain listened to all this "flam," bowed his acknowledgments, and then suddenly asked the mandarin the prisoner's name.

Again the fat, complacent face darkened, and almost scowled. "No," he replied sullenly, he himself "was not permitted" to know the prisoner's name. His crime? He did not know. When was he to be tried? To-morrow. Then he rose and abruptly requested the captain to ask no more questions. But, he added, with a smile, he could promise him that he should at least see the captive again.

In a few minutes a boat came off, and the prisoner, closely guarded, and with his face covered with a piece of cloth, was hurried ashore.

Four days had passed—days of heat so intense that even the Chinese crew of the steamer lay about the decks under the awning, stripped to their waists, and fanning themselves languidly. During this time the captain and his officers, by careful inquiries, ascertained that the unfortunate prisoner was a brother of one of the Wangs, or seven "Heavenly Kings," who had led the Taeping forces, and that for a long time past the Viceroy had made most strenuous efforts to effect his capture, being particularly exasperated with him, not only for his courage in the field, and the influence he had wielded over the unfortunate Taepings, who were wiped out by Gordon and the Ever-Victorious Army, but also because he refused to accept Li Hung Chang's sworn word to spare his life if he surrendered; for well he knew that a death by torture awaited him. Gordon himself, it was said, revolver in hand, and with tears of rage streaming down his face, had sought to find and shoot the Viceroy for the cruel murder of other leaders who had surrendered to him under the solemn promise of their lives being spared.

Late in the afternoon, a messenger came on board with a note to the captain. It was from the mandarin Kwang, and contained but a line. "Follow the bearer, who will guide you to the prisoner."

An hour later Carpenter was conducted through a narrow door which was set in a very high wall of great thickness. He found himself in a garden of the greatest beauty, and magnificent proportions. Temples and other buildings of the most elaborate and artistic design and construction showed here and there amid a profusion of gloriously-foliaged trees and flowering shrubs. No sound broke the silence except the twittering of birds; and not a single person was visible.

The guide, who had not yet uttered a single word, now turned and motioned Carpenter to follow him along a winding path, paved with white marble slabs, and bordered with gaily-hued flowers. Suddenly they emerged upon a lovely sward of the brightest green, in the centre of which a fountain played, sending its fine feathery spray high in air.

On one side of the fountain were a number of "braves" who stood in a close circle, and, as Carpenter approached, two of them silently stepped out of the cordon, brought their rifles to the salute, and the guide whispered to him to enter.

Within the circle was Kwang, who was seated in his chair of office. He rose and greeted the captain politely.

"I promised you that you should again see the criminal in whom you and your officers took such a deep and benevolent interest. I now fulfil that promise—and leave you." And, with a malevolent smile, he bowed and disappeared.

The guide touched Carpenter's arm.

"Look," he said in a whisper.

Within a few inches of a wavering line of spray from the fountain, purposely diverted so as to fall upon the grass, lay what appeared at first sight to be a round bundle tied up in a buffalo hide. A black swarm of flies buzzed and buzzed over and around it.

"Draw near and look," said the harsh voice of the officer who commanded the grim, silent guard, as he stepped up to the strange-looking bundle, and waved his fan quickly to and fro over a protuberance in the centre.

A black cloud of flies arose, and revealed a sight that will haunt Carpenter to his dying day—the purpled, distorted face of a living man. The eyelids had been cut off, and only two dreadful, bloodied, glaring things of horror appealed mutely to God. The victim's knees had been drawn up to his chin, and only his head was visible; for the fresh buffalo hide in which his body had been sewn, fitted tightly around his neck.

Shuddering with horror, and yet fascinated with the dreadful spectacle, Carpenter asked the officer how long the prisoner had been tortured.

"Four days," was the reply.

For the buffalo, the hide of which was to be the prisoner's death-wrap, was in readiness the moment the steamer arrived, and ten minutes after the signal was hoisted, the creature was killed, the hide stripped off, and the prisoner sewn up in it, only his head being left free.

Then he was carried to a heated room, so that the hide should contract quickly. From there he was taken to the fountain, where his eyelids were cut off, and then he was laid upon the ground, his mouth just within a few inches of a spray from the fountain.

And the Viceroy came, saw, approved, and smiled, and assigned to Kwang the honoured post of watching his hated enemy die under slow and agonising torture. To attract the flies, honeyed water was applied to the prisoner's shaven head and face. And the guards, now and then as his thirst increased, offered him brine to drink.

"He is still alive," the brutal-faced Tartar officer said genially, as he touched one of the dreadful eyeballs, and the poor, tortured creature's lips moved slightly.

Sick at heart and almost overcome with horror, Captain Carpenter, with quickened footsteps, passed through the cordon of guards, and followed his guide from the dreadful spot.

In a few minutes he was without the wall, and a sigh of relief broke from him as he set out towards the river.