CHAPTER XXII. THE REIGN OF KWANGSU

Thus after a very brief interval the governing power again passed into the hands of the regents who had ruled the state so well for the twelve years following the death of Hienfung. The nominal emperor was a child of little more than three years of age, to whom was given the style of "Kwangsu," or "illustrious succession," and the empresses could look forward to many years of authority in the name of so young a sovereign. The only opposition to their return to power seems to have come from the palace eunuchs, who had asserted themselves during the brief reign of Tungche and hoped to gain predominance in the imperial councils. But they found a determined mistress in the person of Tsi An, the Eastern Empress, as she was also called, who took vigorous action against them, punishing their leaders with death and effectually nipping in the bud all their projects for making themselves supreme.

The return of the empresses to power was followed by a great catastrophe in the relations between England and China. For the moment it threw every other matter into the shade, and seemed to render the outbreak of war between the two countries almost inevitable. In the year 1874 the government of India, repenting of its brief infatuation for the Panthay cause, yet still reluctant to lose the advantages it had promised itself from the opening of Yunnan to trade, resolved upon sending a formal mission of explory under Colonel Horace Browne, an officer of distinction, through Burmah to that province. The difficulties in the way of the undertaking seemed comparatively few, as the King of Burmah was friendly and appeared disposed at that time to accept his natural position as the dependent of Calcutta. The Pekin authorities also were outwardly not opposed to the journey; and the only opposition to be apprehended was from the Yunnan officials and people.

It was thought desirable, with the view of preparing the way for the appearance of this foreign mission, that a representative of the English embassy at Pekin, having a knowledge of the language and of the ceremonial etiquette of the country, should be deputed to proceed across China and meet Colonel Browne on the Burmese frontier. The officer selected for this delicate and difficult mission was Mr. Raymond Augustus Margary, who to the singular aptitude he had displayed in the study of Chinese added a buoyant spirit and a vigorous frame that peculiarly fitted him for the long and lonely journey he had undertaken across China. His reception throughout was encouraging. The orders of the Tsungli Yamen, specially drawn up by the Grand Secretary Wansiang, were explicit, and not to be lightly ignored. Mr. Margary performed his journey in safety; and, on January 26, 1875, only one fortnight after Kwangsu's accession, he joined Colonel Browne at Bhamo. A delay of more than three weeks ensued at Bhamo, which was certainly unfortunate. Time was given for the circulation of rumors as to the approach of a foreign invader along a disturbed frontier held by tribes almost independent, and whose predatory instincts were excited by the prospect of rich plunder, at the same time that their leaders urged them to oppose a change which threatened to destroy their hold on the caravan route between Bhamo and Talifoo. When, on February 17, Colonel Browne and his companions approached the limits of Burmese territory, they found themselves in face of a totally different state of affairs from what had existed when Mr. Margary passed safely through three weeks before. The preparations for opposing the English had been made under the direct encouragement, and probably the personal direction, of Lisitai, a man who had been a brigand and then a rebel, but who at this time held a military command on the frontier.

As Colonel Browne advanced he was met with rumors of the opposition that awaited him. At first these were discredited, but on the renewed statements that a large Chinese force had been collected to bar his way, Mr. Margary rode forward to ascertain what truth there was in these rumors. The first town on this route within the Chinese border is Momein, which, under the name of Tengyue, was once a military station of importance, and some distance east of it again is another town, called Manwein. Mr. Margary set out on February 19, and it was arranged that only in the event of his finding everything satisfactory at Momein was he to proceed to Manwein. Mr. Margary reached Momein in safety, and reported in a letter to Colonel Browne that all was quiet at that place, and that there were no signs of any resistance. That letter was the last news ever received from Mr. Margary. On February 19 he started from Momein, and the information subsequently obtained left no doubt that he was treacherously murdered on that or the following day at Manwein. An ominous silence followed, and Colonel Browne's party delayed its advance until some definite news should arrive as to what had occurred in front, although the silence was sufficient to justify the worst apprehensions. Three days later the rumor spread that Mr. Margary and his attendants had been murdered. It was also stated that an army was advancing to attack the English expedition; and on February 22 a large Chinese force did make its appearance on the neighboring heights. There was no longer any room to doubt that the worst had happened, and it only remained to secure the safety of the expedition. The Chinese numbered several thousand men under Lisitai in person, while to oppose them there were only four Europeans and fifteen Sikhs. Yet superior weapons and steadfastness carried the day against greater numbers. The Sikhs fought as they retired, and the Chinese, unable to make any impression on them, abandoned an attack which was both perilous and useless.