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.

The throne in the audience-hall was a simple raised scaffold in the centre of the room, with a screen behind it, and a staircase of seven or eight steps leading up to it. Access to this sort of platform-island from the gate at which we entered was obtained by means of a marble bridge, spanned across on two strong marble supports. The staircase leading to the first floor was at the end of the building, directly opposite to where the bridge was; so that, on coming from the bridge, we had to go through the whole colonnade to reach it.

Having taken a sketch or two, I retraced my steps and again reached the entrance. The instant I was outside, the gate was again shut and nailed up, wooden bars being put right across it. I was then led to the inner enclosure. The gate of this was guarded by about a dozen armed men, I being now in front of the part of the house which was inhabited by the King himself. After all, however, his abode is no better than the houses of the noblemen all over Seoul. It is as simple as possible in all its details; in fact, it is studiously made so. There are no articles of value in the rooms, except a few screens painted by native artists; nor are there any signs marking it out in particular as the abode of a Sovereign. The houses of the high court dignitaries are infinitely more gaudy than the royal palace, for they are decorated externally in bright red and green colours.

The morning was spent in prowling about the grounds and in sketching here and there. In front of the King's house, protected at a short distance by a low wall, is a second pond, in the middle of which, on a small island, the King has erected a summer pavilion of octagonal shape, in which during the warmer months he enjoys the reviving coolness of the still nights confabulating on State affairs with his Ministers and advisers (not foreign advisers), a pretty semi-circular, white wooden bridge joining, so to speak, the island to the mainland; but, besides this and the buildings provided for the accommodation of the Chinese envoys, when they come, I do not think there is anything in the royal enclosure worthy of special notice.

Near the main entrance of the palace is a small house for the accommodation of foreign Ministers, consuls and Chinese customs officials, when, on New Year's Day and other public occasions, they are received in audience by the King. The small room is actually provided with a stove, as several unfortunate ambassadors have been known to have caught dreadful colds through having to remain exposed to the natural temperature for hours until it was the King's pleasure to have them admitted to his presence. Indeed, I believe I am right when I state that one or two of these notabilities died in consequence of their experiences in this way. At all events, during my stay at Seoul, the Japanese Minister came by his death through a cold which he contracted by having to stand an inordinate time in the cold room, in his evening dress, and then walk minus his overcoat or wrappers, through the interminable paved passage leading to the audience-hall.

Here let me digress. This ambassador's funeral, was, indeed, a comical sight. I am well aware that it is bad form to find entertainment among things pertaining to the dead. However, it was not the corpse that made the performance in question seem funny, but those that remained alive, and intended to honour his remains. Telegrams arrived from Japan to the effect that the body should be despatched to his native country; arrangements were therefore made by the Japanese indwellers to convey and escort the body of their representative from the capital to Chemulpo, a port about twenty-five miles distant. According to this plan, the loyal Japanese coolies were to carry the heavy hearse on their backs, while the King of Corea agreed to despatch four hundred soldiers of cavalry and infantry by way of escort, all the foreign residents being also intended to follow the procession part of the way in their sedan-chairs. So far so good, and all proceeded, as directed, in good order until the Mafu ferry was reached. The procession, having crossed the river here, at once proceeded to re-form on the large stretch of sand on the other side. While, then, the Japanese, who have always been fond of playing at soldiers, and had brought down to the river-side with them a couple of field-guns, were being treated by a Japanese attache, clad in an exaggerated diplomatic uniform covered with gold braiding, and standing in dancing pumps in the sands that half-buried him, to a recapitulation of the virtues of the defunct, the coolies were bearing the hearse on their backs, the Corean cavalry and infantry forming two lines in good style. There stood the Corean horsemen, each supported by two men, apparently unconcerned at the long Japanese rigmarole, of which they did not understand a word; there rode as stiff as statues outside the ranks the officers of Cho-sen, on their little ponies. All of a sudden, however, the two field-guns went off, and with the most disastrous effects. Half the cavalrymen tumbled off their saddles at the unexpected bucking of their frightened ponies, and the whole band of horsemen was soon scattered in every direction, while the men who were carrying the hearse, following the example of the ponies, gave such a jerk at the sudden explosion, as to nearly drop their burden on the ground. By-and-by, the commotion subsided; the procession got into marching order, and all went well until the seaport was reached. The better class Japanese, I may mention, were dressed in stage uniforms, or in evening dress and tall hats, and that though the hour was 9 A.M. or soon after.

But let us return to the royal palace. The King and Queen have numberless relations, but not all of these live in the royal "compound." Those that do, have each a separate small house; those that do not, live in the immediate neighbourhood of the palace enclosure, so as to be within easy reach when wanted; it being one of the little failings of the Corean potentate to call up his relations at all hours as well of the night as of the day. In fact, nearly all the work done by the King, and nearly all the interviews which he grants to his Ministers take place during the dark hours, the principal reason given for which is that by this means, intrigue is prevented, and people are kept in utter ignorance as to what takes place at Court.

It is a great mistake to suppose that the good-natured King of Cho-sen, possesses a harem as big as that of the Sultan of Turkey; indeed, the contrary is the fact. He is quite satisfied with a single wife, that is to say, the Queen. Needless to say, however, were the custom otherwise, he certainly would not be the person to object to the institution, for his predecessors undoubtedly indulged in such an extravagance. The real truth is the King of Cho-sen has married a little lady stronger minded than himself, and is compelled to keep on his best behaviour, and see to it that he does not get into trouble. There are bad tongues in Seoul who say that the Queen actually rules the King, and therefore, through him, the country, and that he is more afraid of Her Gracious Majesty, his wife, than of the very devil himself. For the correctness of this statement I will not answer.

The Queen is a very good-looking, youngish woman, younger than the King, and has all her wits about her. She is said to be much in favour of the emancipation of the Corean woman, but she has made no actual effort, that I am aware of, to modify the comparatively strict rules of their seclusion. She comes of one of the oldest families in Cho-sen, and by a long way the noblest, that of the Mins. She treats herself to countless Court ladies, varying in number between a score and three hundred, according to the wants of the Court at different times.

One of the quaintest and nicest customs in Corea is the respect shown by the young for the old; what better, then, can the reigning people do but set the good example themselves? Every year the King and Queen entertain in the royal palace an old man and an old woman of over the age of ninety, and no matter from what class these aged specimens are drawn, they are always looked after and cared for under their own supervision and made happy in every way. Every year a fresh man and woman must be chosen for this purpose, those of the previous competition being hors de concours. These privileged individuals, if devoid of means, are well provided with all the necessaries of life and cash before they are sent home; and not infrequently they end by never leaving the royal palace, or by settling in the house of some prince or magistrate, by whom they are fed and clothed till the end of their days. Of course, in many cases it happens that the oldest man or woman in the town is a nobleman or a noblewoman; in which case, after the lapse of a certain space of time, further enjoyment of the royal hospitality is politely declined.

Under the last-mentioned circumstances valuable presents are, however, given them as mementoes of the stay at the royal palace. This privilege is much thought of among the Coreans, and a family who has had a member royally entertained and treated as King's "brothers" - for I believe that is the name by which they go - is held in great respect by the community, and in perfect veneration by their immediate neighbours.

The King dresses just like any other high official when the country is in mourning - that is to say, he has a long white garment with baggy sleeves, and the usual jewelled projecting belt, with the winged skull-cap; but when the land is under normal conditions, he dons a gaudy blue silk gown with dragons woven into the texture, while over his chest in a circular sort of plate a larger rampant fire-dragon is embroidered in costly silks and gold. When the latter dress is worn his cap is of similar shape to that worn when in mourning, only it is made of the finest black, instead of white, horse-hair, stiffened with varnish.

The King's throne is simple but imposing. He sits upon three carved marble steps, covered with a valuable embroidered cloth, by the side of which, on two pillars, are two magnificent bronze vases. Behind him is a screen of masonry; for no king when in state must ever be either seen from behind, or looked down on by any one standing behind or beside him. Such an insult and breach of etiquette, especially in the latter way, would, until quite recently, probably have meant the loss of the offender's head. Tainted, however, unfortunately with a craze for Western civilisation, the King now seldom sits on his marble throne, adorned with fine carvings of dragons and tigers, preferring to show himself sitting in a cheap foreign arm-chair with his elbow reclining on a wretched little twopence-halfpenny table covered with a green carpet. He imagines that he thus resembles a potentate of Europe! His son generally sits by his side on these occasions.

The King's relations take no active part in politics, as they consider it unfair and beneath them, but the King, of course, does, and, judging from appearances, he seems to take a great deal of interest in his country and his people. He is constantly despatching officials on secret missions to this or that province, often in disguise, and at a moment's notice, in order to obtain reliable information as to the state of those provinces, and the opinions of the natives regarding the magistrates appointed by him. The capital itself, too, contains practically a mass of detectives, who keep spying on everybody and one another, always ready to report the evil-doing of others, and often being caught in flagrante delicto themselves. Very often even nobles with whom I was well acquainted suddenly disappeared for days and weeks at a time, no one knowing either whither they had gone or what they were doing, except that they had left on a mission from the King. So little confidence has he in his special envoys that even when he has despatched one straight from the royal palace, with strict orders not to return home to tell his family whither he is gone, he soon after sends a second disguised messenger to look after the doings of the first, and see that he has well and faithfully carried out his orders. By the time the two have returned, some intrigue or accusations will have probably been instituted against them, in which case all the thanks they obtain for obeying His Majesty is either that they are degraded or that they are exiled to some outlandish province in the Ever White Mountain district or on the Russian frontier.

The subject of politics is entrusted entirely to the nobles. It was my good fortune to get on the most friendly terms with the greatest politician in Corea, a man called Kim-Ka-Chim, of whom I give a picture, as he appeared in the horse-hair head-gear which he used to wear indoors. He was a man of remarkable intelligence, quick-witted, and by far the best diplomatist I have ever met - and I have met a good many. To entrap him was impossible, however hard you might try. For sharpness and readiness of reply, I never saw a smarter man. He was at one time Corean Ambassador to the Mikado's Court, and in a very short time mastered the Japanese language to perfection; while with Chinese he was as familiar as with his own tongue. I myself noticed with what facility he picked up English words, and, having taken it into his head that he wished to learn the English language, he set about it, and was able to understand, read, and speak a little, in a very short time - in fact, in a few days. Not only is he talented, but also endowed with a wonderful courage and independence, which superiority over the narrow-minded officials and intriguers who, for the most part, surround the King, has often led him into scrapes with His Majesty of Cho-sen. As he jocosely said to me, it was a marvel to him that his head was still on his shoulders. It was too good, and some one else might wish to have it. He was an ardent reformer and a great admirer of Western ways. His great ambition was to visit England and America, of which he had heard a great deal. Strangely, on the very morning which succeeded the afternoon on which I had this conversation with him I received an intimation to the effect that he had, by order of the King, and for some trivial breach of etiquette, been sent by way of punishment to one of the most distant provinces in the kingdom.

The most noteworthy point of the Corean Court etiquette is probably this, that the King is on no account allowed to touch any other metals than gold and silver; for which reason his drinking-cup is made of a solid block of gold, while other articles, again, are of silver.

The native name by which the King calls himself is Im-gun (king, sovereign). He has a very valuable library of Chinese manuscripts and printed books in the palace compound, but those books are hardly ever opened or looked at nowadays, except by some rare student of noble rank. Archery and falconry are occupations which are deemed far more worthy of attention by the nobility than that of worrying their heads with attempts to interpret the mysteries of antiquated Chinese characters.

The falcon is held in much veneration among the nobler classes, and a special retainer - a falconer - is usually kept to wait on the precious bird. The latter is taken out on the man's arm, with his head covered by a gaudy little hood. This hood is quickly removed whenever an opportunity arises to send him off after some unfortunate bird. Then, mounting aloft, and spreading his wings and whirling round his prey in concentric circles, he gradually descends in a spiral, until, at last, dashing down upon his victim, he seizes it with his pointed claws and brings it to his master. At other times the falcon is not flown, but only used to attract, with his mesmeric eyes, birds; these then, when within reach, being shot with old flint-lock guns. The other method is, however, the favourite form of this amusement, and large sums are often spent by the young nobles on well-trained birds. Entertainments are even given to witness the doings of these air-rovers, and the excitement displayed by the audience on such occasions is intense, especially when libations have been previously freely indulged in. Competitions between the falcons of different owners are frequent, and much betting takes place under such circumstances.

The life of royalty and of the nobility is, taken all round, a very lazy one. Exercise is considered a degenerate habit, fit only for people who have to earn a living; and, as for manual labour, a Corean nobleman would much prefer suicide to anything so disgraceful.

Archery is one of the few exceptions to the rule, and is declared a noble pastime. Princes and nobles indulge in it, and even become dexterous at it. The bows used are very short, about two-and-a-half feet long, and are kept very tight. The arrows are short and light, generally made of bamboo, or a light cane, and a man with a powerful wrist can send an arrow a considerable distance, and yet hit his target every time. Nevertheless, the noble's laziness is, as a rule, so great, that many of this class prefer to see exhibitions of skill by others, rather than have the trouble of taking part in such themselves; professional archers, in consequence, abounding all over the country, and sometimes being kept at the expense of their admirers. Both the Government and private individuals offer large prizes for skilful archers, who command almost as much admiration as do the famous espadas in the bull-fights of Spain. The King, of course, keeps the pick of these men to himself; they are kept in constant training and frequently display their skill before His Majesty and the Court.

I well remember how, one day, through my incautiousness, I very nearly made the end of a St. Sebastian. It was near the drilling-ground at the East Gate. I was quietly walking along the earthern dyke which runs along the little river that crosses Seoul, when from down below I heard screams of "Chucomita! Chucomita!" ("Wait! wait!") " Kidare!" ("Stop!") I stopped, accordingly, and tried to look across the open ground, where I saw about a score of men, nearly two hundred yards away, apparently pointing at me. As the setting sun was glaring in my eyes, I could not well discern what they were doing, and, thinking that their shouts to me were only by way of joke, I made a step forward, but hardly had I done so when a noise like a rocket going past was heard, and a bunch of arrows became deeply planted in the earth, at a white circular spot marked on it, only about two yards in front of me. I counted them. They were ten in number. My danger, however, was, after all, practically of no account, for these archers, as I found out by repeated observation of them, hardly ever miss their target. Still, even in the case of these Cho-senese William Tells, it was by no means a pleasant sensation to hear that bunch of arrows whistling in front of my nose.

As I was attentively listening to the information supplied me by the native gentleman who was accompanying me through the labyrinthian ways of the royal palace, young Prince Min appeared on the scene, and announced that His Majesty wished, through him, to welcome me to the royal palace, and that he wished me now to partake of dinner. First, however, he said, the King would be pleased if I would take a sketch from a particular spot to which he led me. As there was nothing specially worth sketching at that place, I suggested to the young prince that another spot would be preferable; but the latter insisted, in the King's name, that I should paint from there and left me. I noticed, however, that there was, just behind this spot, a window, that namely, of the queen's apartments, which led me at once to fancy that it was to satisfy her curiosity that I was made to work there; accordingly I began the sketch with my back to the window - for, it must be remembered, to look at the queen is an offence punishable by death. I had not been many minutes at work, nevertheless, before I heard the sliding window gently move. I knew what was coming, and tried to screen the sketch with my body, so as to compel the observer, whoever it was, to lean well out of the window if he wished to see it. A little way off were hundreds of soldiers, walking or squatting on the ground, and on the wall of the King's house and smaller trees the fat and repulsive eunuchs had perched themselves in order to watch the foreigner's doings. All of a sudden there was a piercing squeak and a quick change of scene. Every one standing fell flat on his chest, the soldiers to a man hid their faces in their hands on the ground, and the clumsy eunuchs dropped down pell-mell from their perches, like over-ripe fruit coming off the branch of a tree, and disappeared behind the wall. Then, for a moment, all was silence; then there followed another shriek. It was evidently a command to stand still until further notice. When I looked for my Corean companion I found that he, like the rest, was spread out with his face to the ground.

"I say, Mr. S." I whispered, touching him with my foot, "what does all this mean?"

"Please, sir," he murmured, "do not look! do not speak! do not turn your head! or I shall be beheaded!"

"Oh! I do not mind that at all," said I, laughingly, as my friend was squashing what he had in the shape of a nose into the dust.

At this point there was another noise at the window, as if it were being pushed quite open, and I heard a whisper. The supreme moment had come, and I was bold. I turned quickly round. It was just as I had judged. The queen, with her bright, jet black eyes and refined features, was there, caught in the act of thrusting her head out of the window, while several ladies of different ages were in the background, apparently on the tips of their toes and peeping over Her Majesty's shoulders. I had just time to see her face; for, taken as she was by surprise at such an unbounded bit of forwardness on my part, she remained perplexed for a second, then quickly withdrew, coming into dreadful collision with her ladies-in-waiting, who were at the moment just moving forward. The sliding window was hurriedly closed; there were shrieks of laughter from inside - apparently they had enjoyed the fun - and by the sound of a shrill whistle the men who had been lying "dead" rose and fled, relieved from their uncomfortable position.

"Do you know," said my Corean friend, as he got up and shook the dust and dirt off his beautiful silk gown, quite ignorant of what had happened, "do you know that if you had turned your head round and looked, I would be a dead man to-morrow?"

"Why; who was there?"

"The queen, of course. Did you not hear the two shrieks and the whistle? Those were the signs of her coming and going."

"If you were to be beheaded, Mr. S., would you be afraid of death?"

"Oh, no, sir," he said emphatically. "I am a brave man, and I come of a family of braves. I would die like a hero."

"Oh," said I, changing the conversation, "how pretty the queen looked!"

"Did you see her?" said he, horrified.

"Yes, I did."

"Oh, poor me, poor me, poor me!" he cried in despair. "You have seen her! I shall die! Oh, poor me, poor me, poor me!" and he shivered and shuddered and trembled.

"I thought that you were not afraid of death, Mr. S.?"

"Now that you have seen her, I am!" he mumbled pitifully.

"All right, Mr. S. Do not be afraid, I shall take all the blame on myself, and you will not be punished, I promise you."

At this point Prince Min came to fetch me, and I told him the whole story, relieving Mr. S. of all responsibility for my cheeky action, after which, having made sure that he would not be punished, we proceeded to the feast. The hour, be it noted, was about noon. As we were passing along the wall of the King's apartment, His Majesty peeped over the wall and smiled most graciously to me. Shortly after he sent a messenger to the dining-room to express regret that he was not able to entertain me himself owing to pressing State affairs.

For the dinner a long table had been arranged in the European style, at the head of which sat Prince Min, acting in the place of the King. The forks and spoons were of tin, and the knives had apparently been used, for they were by no means clean. Rust, therefore, reigned supreme. The glasses and tumblers were of the thickest and commonest kind, but they had cost His Majesty a fortune all the same.

We all sat down gaily, Mr. S. having recovered his spirits on being assured that he would not be punished, and the feast began. It would be easier for me to tell you what was not on that table than what was. All the products of the country seemed to have been cooked and brought before me, including meats, fish, honey, sweets, vegetables and sauces, of which, mind you, one had to eat "mountains," piled on our plates. Young pigs, in the puppy state, were also there, and were much appreciated by my princely entertainers; but, when I had got only half through, not being provided with an ever-expanding digestive apparatus, like my friends of Cho-sen, I really felt as if I was going to suffocate. It is a great insult to refuse what is offered you at table, and a greater insult, too, and gross breach of good manners, not to eat all that is on your plate; it can be easily imagined, then, how I was situated after having swallowed large quantities of beef, potatoes, barley, millet, not to mention about half a bushel of beans. Nevertheless, I was further treated to lily-bulbs and radishes dipped in the vilest of sauces, besides a large portion of a puppy-pig roasted, and fruit in profusion, foreign and native wines flowing freely. The dinner began at noon and was not brought to a legitimate close until the happy hour of 7 P.M.

Talk of suffering! To those who appreciate the pleasure of eating, let me recommend a royal Corean dinner! No pen can describe the agonies I endured as I was carried home in the green sedan. Every jerk that the bearers gave made me feel as if I had swallowed a cannon-ball, which was moving mercilessly from one side of my body to the other. I could not help expecting an explosion at any moment, or, at all events, a rent in my overtight skin! On my way home I swore that as long as I lived I would never touch another mouthful of food, so disgusted was I with things eatable; but - needless to say, I have since many times broken my word.