CHAPTER I. Christmas on board - Fusan - A body-snatcher - The Kiung-sang Province - The cotton production - Body-snatching extraordinary - Imperatrice Gulf - Chemulpo.
It was on a Christmas Day that I set out for Corea. The year was 1890. I had been several days at Nagasaki, waiting for the little steamer, Higo-Maru, of the Nippon Yusen Kaisha (Japan Steamship Company), which was to arrive, I think, from Vladivostock, when a message was brought to me saying that she was now in port, and would sail that afternoon for Tsushima, Goto, and the Corean ports.
I went on board, and, our vessel's anchor being raised at four o'clock, we soon steamed past Battenberg Island and got away from the picturesque Bay of Nagasaki. This was the last I saw of Japan.
The little Higo was not a bad seaboat, for, following good advice, her owners had provided her with rolling beams; but, mind you, she had by no means the steadiness of a rock, nor did she pretend to cut the water at the rate of twenty knots an hour. Still, taken all in all, she was a pretty good goer. Her captain was a Norwegian, and a jolly fellow; while the crew she carried was entirely Japanese, with the exception of the stewards in the saloon, who were two pig-tailed subjects of the Celestial Empire.
"Numbel one Clistmas dinnel has got to-night, Mastel," expostulated John Chinaman to me in his pidgen English, as I was busy making my cabin comfortable. "Soup has got, fish has got, loast tulkey has got, plan-puddy all bulning has got. All same English countly. Dlink, to-night, plenty can have, and no has to pay. Shelly can have, Boldeau can have, polt, bea, champagne, blandy, all can have, all flee!"
I must say that when I heard of the elaborate dinner to which we were to be treated by the captain, I began to feel rather glad that I had started on my journey on a Christmas Day.
There were a few Japanese passengers on board, but only one European, or rather American, besides myself, and a most pleasant companion he turned out to be. He was Mr. Clarence R. Greathouse, formerly Consul-General for the United States at Yokohama - at which place I first had the pleasure of meeting him - who was now on his way to Corea, where he had been requested by the Corean Government to accept the high and responsible position of Vice-Minister of Home Affairs, as well as of legal adviser to the King in international affairs.
Curiously enough, he had not been aware that I was to travel on the same ship, and I also never dreamt that I would have had the good fortune of being in such good and agreeable company during a voyage which otherwise would have been extremely dull. Accordingly, when we met again thus accidentally on the deck of the Higo, the event was as much to our mutual satisfaction as it was unexpected.
The sea was somewhat choppy, but notwithstanding this, when the steward appeared on the companion-way, beaming all over, in his best silk gown and jacket, and rang the dinner-bell with all his might, we gaily responded to his call and proceeded below.
Heavens! it was a Christmas dinner and no mistake! The tables and walls had been decorated with little paper flags and flowers made of the brightest colours that human fancy could devise, and dishes of almonds and raisins filled the centre of the table. There were little flags stuck in those dishes, and, indeed, everywhere. A big cake in the middle had prudently been tied to the table with a string, as the rolling motion of the ship was rather against its chances of keeping steady in the place that had been assigned to it, and the other usual precautions had been taken to keep the plates and glasses in their proper positions.
Our dinner-party consisted of about eight. At one moment we would be up, with our feet on a level with our opposite companion's head; the next we would be down, with the soles of their boots higher than our skulls.
It is always a pretty sight to see a table decorated, but when it is not only decorated but animated as well, it is evidently prettier still. When you see all the plates and salt-cellars moving slowly away from you, and as slowly returning to you; when you have to chase your fork and your knife before you can use them, the amusement is infinitely greater.
"O gomen kudasai" - "I beg your pardon" - said a Japanese gentleman in rather a hurried manner, and more hurriedly still made his exit into his cabin. Two or three others of his countrymen followed suit during the progress of the dinner, and as number after number of the menu was gone through, so that we who remained had a capital time. Not many minutes also elapsed without our having a regular fusillade of bottles of champagne of some unknown brand, and "healths" were drunk of distant friends and relatives.
Mr. Greathouse, who, like many of his countrymen, has a wonderful gift for telling humorous stories, of which he had an unlimited supply, kept us in fits all evening, and in fact the greater part of the night, so that when we passed the islands of Goto and Tsushima we were still awake and in course of being entertained by his Yankee yarns.
The next day we reached the Corean port of Fusan. I well remember how much I was struck when we entered the pretty harbour and approached the spot where we cast anchor, by the sight of hundreds of white spots moving slowly along the coast and on a road winding up a hill. As we drew nearer, the white spots became larger and assumed more and more the form of human beings. There was something so ghostly about that scene that it is still vividly impressed upon my mind.