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Crucible of Gold


Page 13


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"I see no call for that," Temeraire said coolly. "We are sure to meet some other Incan dragons sometime, whom I am sure will be much better company."
"It is not as though you should have to translate between him and Iskierka," Hammond said.
"I do not see what that has to do with anything," Temeraire said. "I certainly do not care in the least if he does wish to speak with Iskierka; although he can scarcely have anything very intelligent to say, anyway."
"He gave me his share of the tunny, yesterday," Iskierka said on deck, later that afternoon, "and if he likes to talk to me, he may; I think he is perfectly polite."
She nodded to Maila, a gesture Temeraire felt was quite uncalled-for, and rather like fraternizing with the enemy; and to his indignation Maila puffed himself up and nodded back and said, "Madam-charming," slowly and carefully.
"Oh! So you can speak properly," Iskierka said. "Why haven't you, before?"
"Only a little, now," Maila said.
"He has been eavesdropping on my lessons," Temeraire said to Hammond, "in the most rude fashion, without showing the least consciousness after; I cannot think much of his manners at all."
"So he is learning English?" Hammond said, now whispering excessively low: nearly inaudible here on deck, where there were people shouting in the rigging everywhere to make it difficult to hear, when he would yell so frantically aloft. Temeraire flattened his ruff in annoyance. "I had thought older dragons could not, save your breed-how splendid that he can as well! Would he perhaps consent to speak with me, do you think-"
Temeraire did not see anything splendid in it, and in any case Maila steadfastly continued to ignore Hammond's overtures. One might have expected Hammond to have enough self-respect, Temeraire thought, to leave off his attempts, but instead Hammond insisted on shouting all the louder in his next lesson for Temeraire; and even though Temeraire tried to fly at a farther distance, Maila kept close after him, still listening in shamelessly where no-one wanted him at all.
"I think the day will be fine," M. De Guignes said to Temeraire the next morning, coming up to the dragondeck to breakfast with Genevieve.
Temeraire had just cracked his eye after a sleep not really long enough to satisfy. "Yes; it is growing warmer," he said drowsily, and then roused enough to realize that De Guignes had spoken to him in Quechua, rather than in French: rather a mean trick, he thought reproachfully.
"That is a pity," Hammond said, when Temeraire reported the exchange, "but I suppose we could not conceal it forever. Do you think you might be able to keep on, if they should keep me from going aloft with you? I might give Roland some notes on the language, to read to you-"
"You had much better give them to Sipho," Temeraire said: Roland was no great hand at studying. "But perhaps we had better stop, if the French do not like it; anyway I am sure I have learned enough-anyone really skilled at languages does not need to be always having lessons, to learn a new one," he added, looking coldly across the deck at where Maila was sunning himself.
But De Guignes did not make any objection, and after a few wary hours Hammond even set himself up on the dragondeck and began reciting aloud to Temeraire there, as loudly as ever he might, and enunciating his English words far more slowly and clearly than was at all necessary.
"I cannot make out the sense of their heading at all," Laurence said to Granby at their small table that evening: he could see enough of the stars to be nearly sure they were sailing northwesterly, for no reason he could imagine; as good as adding another week to the journey, at least, and worse if the ship should get herself becalmed-no joke to risk with seven heavy-weights aboard.
By Thibaux's courtesy, they had none of them been pillaged, so Laurence still had his glass; three days later, during his airing, it showed him a small atoll rising in the distance.
"Perhaps there will be some good fishing there," Granby suggested. "It would be worth giving up a week, to lay in some stores."
But the island, as it drew nearer, gave no evidence of particular fecundity: some green jungle carpeting a central peak, which could not be convenient to dig through; and the visible shore mostly black rock and sand through the spyglass lens: a scattering of palm-trees and scrub, sea-birds diving. There were some seals, but they cleared out with great speed after the dragons first set upon them, and did not leave behind enough numbers to make any landfall worth the while, Laurence thought. In any case he could not understand the French making so great a delay, when they might as easily have put the British dragons on shorter commons if they feared at all for their own beasts' health.
De Guignes joined him on the deck the next day, at the railing. "Ah, Captain Laurence, you see we have come upon this island," he said, clasping his hands behind his back and studying it meditatively: a black slash upon the ocean, with the dragons rising and falling over it in their hunting.
"Sir, I do," Laurence said, polite and baffled.
De Guignes nodded. "I am desolate," he said, "but here we must part, for a little while; I am assured," he added to Laurence's stare, "that there is fresh water-assured of it; M. Vercieux, the ship's master, has once before made landfall here-"
Chapter 6
THE SHORE WAS NOT MORE HOSPITABLE seen close up: the sand barely a crusting over a heart of hard, salt-pitted rock, and no animals to be seen but birds and small scurrying crabs that fled from the boats. De Guignes intended nothing heartless: the French landed for their provision several rain-barrels, in case the small stream should not be sufficient, and enough salt pork and biscuit to sustain the men at least for months; even a tub of preserved lemons.
"I hope you will not be excessively uncomfortable," he said. "I trust you will not, indeed; the climate, I think, is most tolerable."
He said it smiling, full of courtesy; but there was steel beneath, and Laurence did not imagine there was any use in Hammond's stammering, astonished protests. "Monsieur, we of course will return, in due course," De Guignes said, "on our way back to France: I beg you do not doubt it for a moment," and Laurence did not doubt it. De Guignes would be only too pleased to come back and retrieve a party of thin and demoralized men and beasts to be carried off to France as prize-however many of them had survived.
"But this must end our parole?" Temeraire said hopefully to Laurence, while they stood upon the shore watching the Triomphe haul her boats back aboard. "Surely we cannot be considered their prisoners anymore: they have let us go."
"I should not consider us as obliged to them further, no," Laurence said, dryly, "for what good that may do us."
A series of attempts, never flying more than a day out from the island, might hope to discover some other land in reach; and repeating the method even in time bring them to the continent-in theory. But the dragons had been stripped of harness and all gear; not a tarpaulin was left them. Even if they had wished to try such a blue-water crossing, there would be no way for the dragons to take more than a few men with them, carried in their talons .
"They have abnegated all their duty," Hammond said bitterly, watching the ship go. "Outrageous-without decency-"
Laurence could not so easily castigate the French, when the act might have been excused merely for the sake of their own beasts without the further provocation which had been offered them; and in a more cynical vein he could scarcely be surprised, either, that De Guignes had chosen not to convey them to the Inca. Maila even now looked wistfully back towards Iskierka from the dragondeck, as the Triomphe made sail and began to draw away.
They had been left a few dull-edged hatchets, which would serve to fashion some kind of shelter from the meager supply of wood; the salt pork might be eked out further with fishing, and perhaps some supply from the interior of the island, though Laurence doubted whether there would be much in the way of edible vegetation. He surveyed without pleasure the crowd of sailors, who, having made a muddy wreck of the basin where the stream emptied itself, had now disposed of themselves across the beach in sullen idleness, casting sidelong looks at the barrels and casks: Laurence did not doubt that but for the dragons there should instantly have been mutiny and folly along with it.
"Mr. Ferris," he said grimly, "let us have a little industry here, if you please."
He spoke preoccupied, from instinct; and then it was too late. Lieutenant Forthing was a competent officer and a sensible man; he had gone to New South Wales not, as had many of the other aviators sent with the mission, because he could get no other desirable post, but because as a foundling lacking all influence, he had little other chance of his own beast.
But this was little enough to put to his credit; and Ferris, meanwhile, had not by mere nepotism come by his original position with Temeraire. He had been made third lieutenant of a heavyweight stationed at the Channel as a boy of sixteen years, and since then had shown his worth across three continents and two oceans.
But that was not adequate excuse, Laurence knew. Forthing was not brilliant, but he was not short of courage or of sense, and he was first lieutenant; Laurence had made him so. That Laurence would rather have had Ferris in that place made no more excuse: officers not to his liking had been forced upon him before, and some of them the very dregs of the service, which Forthing was not; Laurence had never permitted his own disappointment to undercut the authority of one of his officers, and thus the chain on which all authority depended.
Never before: but now he had spoken; he had said, "Mr. Ferris," and given the direction to him; and Ferris could not be blamed-Ferris had likely thought as little as Laurence himself, before answering, "Yes, sir," and going at once to work which he did not need laid out for him: the sailors must be rousted from their beds of ease and set to clearing brush, the handful of surviving aviators-the only officers left among them-organized to supervise; small parties of the younger officers sent up into the interior to investigate what supply might be found.
All the work of command-work Ferris knew and had been formed for since his earliest years; work in which he would have been engaged but for a miscarriage of justice. But it was not his work, and Laurence ought not have given it to him. And no way now to easily recant-even more destructive if he had; as much as to say plainly that his first impulse was all for Ferris, and Forthing a poor second in his mind.
Instead Laurence said, "Mr. Forthing, you will oblige me greatly if you will go with Temeraire and look over our prison."
"Very well, sir," Forthing said, mingled relief and surprise in his looks superseding the first flash of dismay which Laurence's first command had produced; he was off to Temeraire's side at once, speaking loudly, "Temeraire, the captain wishes us to survey the island, if you please," before Ferris had even begun his own tasks.
"Yes, I heard; but Laurence, will you not come?" Temeraire said, looking over with a rather puzzled expression.
It was indeed a task Laurence would have preferred to undertake himself-aviators had no experience of surveying coastlines, and Forthing could not be expected to recognize a natural harbor or pick out dangerous shoals, beyond the most obvious. But to send Forthing aloft with Temeraire, Laurence himself remaining behind, was the one mark of trust he could offer which, in the eyes of the aviators, would outrank having put Ferris in charge of arranging the camp.
And to be just, this intelligence was unlikely to be of use. Laurence could not envision any way in which they could proceed, with their crew of disappointed drunkards, to form any boat more sophisticated than a raft; to set them to a little spear-fishing would be the apex of his ambitions.
"You will do very well with Forthing, my dear," Laurence said, "and I had best remain at camp at present; you may wish to delay if you see some chance of good fishing on the other side of the island, as well."
Temeraire did not quite understand why Laurence should have remained behind, when Granby was here also; and if he should have to go without Laurence, he would rather have had Ferris or Roland. Temeraire had not forgotten Forthing's behavior towards Laurence, when they had first been sent to New South Wales. Laurence might like to be generous; Temeraire was not so easily to be won over, and if he must grudgingly allow that Forthing had not been quite so useless as most of the aviators at the new colony, that did not mean Temeraire was enthusiastic to have him form one of his own crew.
Or, Temeraire thought, he might as easily have gone alone-more easily, in fact; he had to carry Forthing cupped in his talons, and it was not at all convenient to always be looking to make sure he had not dropped out; Temeraire was not aware of him in quite the same way as of Laurence.
"I suppose you may make notes," Temeraire said to Forthing, rather doubtfully, as they made ready to go; "but no; you cannot; we haven't any paper," so he had even less notion what use Forthing would be.
"I can sketch the outline when we have returned," Forthing said, a little doubtfully himself, but with an air of determination, "in wet sand."
He did also make a fuss of what ought to have been a simple circuit of the island, which was not very large-he asked Temeraire to set him down more than once, only so he could collect bits of one plant or another which to Temeraire's eye did not look any different from the ones on the original shore; and once in a sandy cove to collect up a truly enormous nest of turtle eggs. These he laboriously piled into his shirt one after another, wrapping each in leaves, while Temeraire had to sit three-quarters in the water being battened on by waves and mouthed at by the little sharks that lived in the cove; at least they were cleaning off the bits of seal meat which had clung to him.

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