CHAPTER XVII. The "King's procession" - Removing houses - Foolhardy people - Beaten to death - Cavalry soldiers - Infantry - Retainers - Banners - Luxurious saddles - The King and his double - Royal palanquins - The return at night.

The official life of the King of Corea is secluded. He rarely goes out of the royal palace, although rumours occasionally fly about that His Majesty has visited such and such a place in disguise. When he does go out officially, the whole town of Seoul gets into a state of the greatest agitation and excitement. Not more than once or twice a year does such a thing happen; and when it does, the thatched shanties erected on the wide royal street are pulled down, causing a good deal of trouble and expense to the small merchants, etc. People fully understand, however, that the construction of these shanties is only allowed on condition that they shall be pulled down and removed whenever necessity should arise; an event which may often occur, at only a few hours' notice. The penalty for non-compliance is beheading.

The moment they receive the order to do so, the inhabitants hurriedly remove all their household goods; the entire families, and those friends who have been called in to help, carrying away brass bowls, clothes and cooking implements, amid a disorder indescribable. Everybody talks, screams and calls out at the same time; everybody tries to push away everybody else in his attempts to carry away his armful of goods in safety; and, what with the dust produced by the tearing the thatch off the roofs, what with the hammering down of the wooden supports, and the bustle of the crowd, the scene is pandemonium.

I well remember how astonished I was when, passing in the neighbourhood of the royal palace, early one morning, I saw the three narrow, parallel streets which lead to the principal gateway being converted into one enormously wide street. The two middle rows of houses were thus completely removed, and the ground was made beautifully level and smooth. Crowds of natives had assembled all along the royal street, as well as up the main thoroughfare, leading from the West to the East gate; and the greatest excitement prevailed amongst the populace. The men were dressed in newly-washed clothes, and the women and children were arrayed in their smartest garments. Infantry soldiers, with muskets, varying from flint-locks to repeating-rifles, were drawn up in a line on each side to keep the road clear. There were others walking along with long, flat paddles, and some with round heavy sticks, on the look-out for those who dared to attempt to cross the road. As generally happens on such occasions, there were some foolish people who did not know the law, and others who challenged one another to do what was forbidden, well knowing that, if caught, severe blows of the paddle would be their portion. Every now and then, howls and shouts would call the attention of the crowd to some nonsensical being running full speed down the middle of the road, or across it, pursued by the angry soldiers, who, when they captured him, began by knocking him down, and continued by beating him with their heavy sticks and paddles, until he became senseless, if not killed. When either of the last-mentioned accidents happened, as occasionally was the result, the body would be thrown into one of the side drain-canals along the road and left there, no one taking the slightest notice of it.

Cavalry soldiers were to be seen in their picturesque blue and brown costumes, and cuirasses, and wide-awake black hats adorned with long red tassels hanging down to the shoulders, or, as an alternative, equipped with iron helmets and armed with flint-locks and spears. In their belts, on one side, they carried swords, and on the other, oil-paper umbrella-shaped covers. When folded, one of these hat-covers resembles a fan; and when spread out for use, it is fastened over the hat by means of a string. Those warriors who wore helmets carried the round felt hats as well, fastened to the butts of their saddles.

This cavalry equipment was in great contrast, from a picturesque point of view, with the comical imitations of the European mode of equipment exhibited by the infantry soldiers. One peculiarity of these cavalrymen was their instability in the saddle. Each cavalier had a mapu to guide the horse, and another man by his side to see that he did not fall off, each having thus two men to look after him. A charge of such cavalry on the battle-field must, indeed, be a curious sight.

In the olden time it was forbidden for any one to look down on the king from any window higher than the palanquins, but now the rule is not so strictly observed, although, even at the time when I witnessed these processions, nearly all the higher windows were kept closed and sealed by the more loyal people. The majority, therefore, witnessed the scene from the streets.

The procession was headed by several hundred infantry soldiers, marching without the least semblance of order, and followed by cuirassed cavalrymen mounted on microscopic ponies in the manner above described. Then followed two rows of men in white, wearing square gauze white caps, similar to those which form the distinctive badge of the students when they go to their examinations; between which two rows of retainers, lower court officials, and yamens, perched on high white saddles, rode the generals and high Ministers of state, supported by their innumerable servants. Narrow long white banners were carried by these attendants, and a dragon-flag of large dimensions towered above them. Amid an almost sepulchral silence, the procession moved past, and after it came a huge white palanquin, propped on two long heavy beams, and carried on the shoulders of hundreds of men.

When the court and country are not in mourning, the horses of the generals, high officials and eunuchs bear magnificent saddles, embroidered in red, green and blue; the ponies led by hand immediately in front of the King's palanquin being also similarly decked out.

Curiously enough, when the first royal palanquin had gone past the procession repeated itself, almost in its minutest details, and another palanquin of the exact shape of the first, and also supported by hundreds of attendants, advanced before us. Puzzled at this strange occurrence, I inquired of a neighbour:

"In which palanquin is the King?"

"No one knows, except his most intimate friends at Court," was the answer. "In case of an attempt upon his life, he may thus be fortunate enough to escape."

If such an attempt were made success would not in any case be an easy matter, except with a gun or a bomb; for the King's sedan is raised so high above the ground that it would be impossible for any one to reach it with his hands. Besides, it is surrounded by a numerous escort.

The sedans were constructed after the model of a large square garden-tent with a pavilion roof, the front side being open. The King - somebody closely resembling him is selected for his double - sits on a sort of throne erected inside.

On another occasion, when I saw a similar procession accompanying the King to the tomb of the queen-dowager, the two palanquins used were much smaller, and were fast closed, although there were windows with thick split bamboo blinds on both sides of each palanquin. The palanquins were covered with lovely white leopard skins outside, and were rich in appearance, without lacking in taste.

When the King's procession returned to the palace after dark, the beauty and weirdness of the sight were increased tenfold. Huge reed-torches, previously planted in the ground at intervals along the line of route, were kindled as the procession advanced, and each soldier carried a long tri-coloured gauze lantern fastened to a stick, while the palanquins were surrounded with a galaxy of white lights attached to high poles. A continuous hollow moaning, to indicate that the King was a very great personage, and that many hundreds of men had undergone great fatigue in carrying him, was heard as the palace gate was approached, and a deep sigh of relief arose from thousands of lungs when he was finally deposited at his door. Propped up by his highest Ministers of state, who held him under the arms, he entered his apartments; after which the lights were quickly put out, and most of the crowd retired to their homes.

On such occasions as these, however, the men are allowed out at night as well as the women.