CHAPTER XII. The royal palace - A royal message - Mounting guard - The bell - The royal precinct - The Russian villa - An unfinished structure - The Summer Palace - The King's house - Houses of dignitaries - The ground and summer pavilion - Colds.
I had some more amusing experiences on the occasion of my first visit to the royal palace. The King had sent me a message one evening saying that any part of the royal palace and grounds would be opened to me, if I wished to make observations or take sketches, and that it would give him much pleasure if I would go there early the next morning and stay to dinner at the palace. This invitation to spend the whole day at the palace was so tempting that I at once accepted it, and next day, accompanied by one of the officials, a Mr. S., I proceeded early in the morning to the side entrance of the enclosure.
The palace and grounds, as we have seen, are enclosed by a wall of masonry about twenty feet high, and from a bird's-eye point of vantage the "compound" has a rectangular shape. There are almost continuous moats round the outside walls, with stone bridges with marble parapets over them at all the entrances. At the corners of the wall d'enceinte are turrets with loopholes. There soldiers are posted day and night to mount guard, each set being relieved from duty at intervals of two hours during the night, when the hammer bell in the centre of the palace grounds sounds its mournful but decided strokes. At midnight a big drum is struck, the harmonic case of which is semi-spherical and covered with a donkey-skin first wetted and made tight. It is by the sound of this smaller bell within the palace grounds that the signal is given at sunset to the "Big Bell" to vibrate through the air those sonorous notes by which, as already stated, all good citizens of the stronger sex are warned to retire to their respective homes, and which give the signal for closing the gates of the town.
When you enter the royal precinct, you run a considerable amount of risk of losing your way. It is quite a labyrinth there. The more walls and gates you go through, the more you wind your way, now round this building, then round that, the more obstacles do you seem to see in front of you. There are sentries at every gate, and at each a password has to be given. When you approach, the infantry soldiers, quickly jumping out of the baskets in which they were slumbering, seize hold of their rifles, and either point their bayonets at you or else place their guns across the door, until the right password is given, when a comical way of presenting arms follows, and you are allowed to proceed.
In the back part of the enclosure is a pretty villa in the Russian style. A few years ago, when European ideas began to bestir the minds of the King of Cho-sen, he set his heart upon having a house built in the Western fashion. No other architect being at hand, his Majesty commissioned a clever young Russian, a Mr. Seradin Sabatin, to build him a royal palace after the fashion of his country. The young Russian, though not a professional architect, did his very best to please the King, and with the money he had at his command, turned out a very solid and well-built little villa, a la Russe, with caloriferes and all other modern appliances. The house has two storeys, but the number of rooms is rather limited. The King, however, seemed much pleased with it, but when it was on the point of completion, at the instigation of some foreign diplomat, he commissioned a French architect from Japan to construct another palace on a much larger scale at some distance from the Russian building. The estimates for this new ground structure were far too small, and by the time that the foundations were laid down, the cost already amounted to nearly three times the sum for which the whole building was to have been erected. The King, disgusted at what he thought to be foreign trickery, but what was really merciless robbery on the part of his own officials, decided to discontinue the new palace, which, in consequence, even now has reached only a height of about three feet above the level of the ground.
The royal palace may be considered as divided into two portions, namely, the summer palace and the winter palace. An official, who came to meet me in the inner enclosure, informed me that His Majesty desired that I should begin by inspecting the summer palace - access to which is not allowed during the winter time - and that he had given orders for the gates leading to it, which had been nailed up and sealed, to await the next warm weather, to be opened for me. No one besides myself and the official to guide me was, however, to be allowed to enter. And so, preceded by a man with a heavy wooden mallet, we arrived at the gate, which, after a considerable amount of hammering and pegging away, was at last forced open. Accompanied by my guide, I straightway entered, two soldiers being left on guard to prevent any one else following. As I got within the enclosure, a pretty sight lay before me. In front was a large pond, now all frozen, in the centre of which stood a large square sort of platform of white marble. On this platform was erected the audience-hall, a colonnade of the same kind of white marble, supported by which was another floor of red lacquered wood with wooden columns, which in their turn upheld the tiled roof with slightly curled up corners. The part directly under the roof was beautifully ornamented with fantastic wood carvings painted yellow, red, green and blue. Red and white were the colours which predominated. A black tablet, with large gold characters on it, was at one side.